The Kootenay Ice open the 2014 pre-season tonight in Kennewick, Wa. as they face the Tri-City Americans at 8 p.m.
Tonight’s date with the Americans marks the first of three games in three nights for the Ice, who will face the Portland Winterhawks Friday afternoon before taking on the Everett Silvertips in a Saturday afternoon matinee.
The team is scheduled to leave Cranbrook this morning and while the act of getting off the bus and getting into the game is nothing new for the returning veteran players, it will present a new challenge for some of the younger players experiencing it for the first time.
“It’s part of the Western Hockey League experience, to build character,” said head coach Ryan McGill prior to practice Wednesday afternoon.
“The biggest thing is to make sure, once they get close to town, they’ve got to mentally focus as to what they want to accomplish.”
Veteran goaltender Wyatt Hoflin is expected to get the start in net tonight and that’s no coincidence. With rookie goaltenders Jayden Sittler and Keelan Williams, McGill wants a fair playing field for the two puckstoppers as they battle one another for the remaining spot in the Kootenay Ice crease. Forcing one of the two straight into a game after an extended bus ride isn’t something the Ice bench boss sees as fair.
Hoflin has only faced the Americans twice in his WHL career, with one of those appearances coming in relief of Mackenzie Skapski last season. Hoflin only saw the crease for a little more than a minute in Kootenay’s 4-2 loss at home Nov. 3, 2013.
Nearly one year to the day, Hoflin earned his first appearance against Tri-City turning aside 35 pucks in a 4-1 loss at Kennewick in pre-season play Sept. 5, 2013.
Following training camp, McGill and the Ice enjoyed an off-day Monday before getting back at it Tuesday afternoon. With a Wednesday practice in the books, the team squeaked in two sessions prior to leaving Cranbrook, focusing in on basic system play and coverages.
“Really basic stuff, making sure you’re on the right side of the puck,” McGill said.
“Forechecking, the system we’ve been working on is basically just making sure our routes are good and we’re trying to keep our instincts in tact. Rather than trying to treat [the players] like robots, try to make sure they understand their routes but we want them to use their instincts, move their feet and put a lot of pressure on the opposition.”
With training camp having started Aug. 27 and concluded Aug. 31, the Ice remain close to a week behind the Americans.
Tri-City rookie camp got under way Aug. 20 and main camp began Aug. 22, giving the host team a few extra days on the visiting Ice.
Additionally, the Americans already have three games worth of pre-season action in the books, having faced Seattle (4-0 L, Aug. 29), Portland (5-2 L, Aug. 30) and Victoria (3-1 W, Aug. 31).
“It’s always a challenge,” McGill said. “They’ve had more practices. They’ve played in the Everett tournament. They’re just a little bit more game-ready than us.
“But it doesn’t change our evaluation process.”
McGill and the rest of the staff are looking for players to display their strengths, but also show an understanding for the concepts being taught.
The Ice will carry 27 players to Kennewick, including the three goaltenders, nine defencemen and 15 forwards.
After tonight’s tilt with Tri-City, the Kootenay Ice face the Portland Winterhawks Friday evening at 4 p.m.