Rebels forward Jeff de Wit (#11) deposits the game-winning goal past Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin Wednesday at Western Financial Place.

Rebels forward Jeff de Wit (#11) deposits the game-winning goal past Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin Wednesday at Western Financial Place.

Short-handed Ice fall to division-leading Rebels

Hosts hang tight for two periods before big-bodied visitors claim victory Wednesday at Western Financial Place

For 40 minutes, the Kootenay Ice managed to go toe to toe, blow for blow with the WHL’s Central Division-leading Red Deer Rebels. But 40 minutes doesn’t make a hockey game as the Rebels skated out of Cranbrook with a 5-2 victory Wednesday night.

“We made it harder than it needed to be,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, Wednesday night. “Our compete level was there.

“No one quit. No one gave up. We kept fighting there.”

No one would’ve blamed Pierce’s squad if they had folded the tent midway through the second period.

After Rebels centre Lane Pederson struck in the first period to open the scoring, the visitors banged home two tallies in a span of 1:49 midway through the second to take what should have been a commanding 3-0 lead.

What appeared to be broken plays in the offensive end of the rink ended up as goals for Red Deer as both Ivan Nikolishin and Jeff de Wit capitalized on loose pucks sliding in near the blue paint of Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin.

For an Ice squad that has struggled to score this season — the team’s 53 goals through 25 games ranks only ahead of the Everett Silvertips’ 52 goals (in 21 games) — a three-goal deficit very well could’ve meant the end of the night, especially considering the likes of captain Luke Philp along with snipers Jaedon Descheneau and Zak Zborosky were amongst the wounded.

But rather than roll over, the beaten, black-and-blue Kootenay Ice found a way to battle back into the contest.

Veteran Matt Alfaro served as the first spark for the Ice.

Parked at the side of the net, the 19-year-old centre collected a rebound, burying it past a helpless Trevor Martin on the man advantage to get the hosts on the board with 4:58 remaining in the middle period.

Sophomore forward Vince Loschiavo was an offensive catalyst, nabbing the primary assist on Alfaro’s power-play tally before getting in on the goal-scoring action himself.

Only 69 seconds elapsed off the clock following Alfaro’s marker before Loschiavo snapped home a quick shot and suddenly, the visiting Rebels found themselves clinging to a one-goal lead as the Ice pressed.

“For the most part, I thought our effort was really good,” Loschiavo said after finish up with a goal and an assist Wednesday. “We played a hard-fought game, especially with some of our key guys out of the lineup.

“We have a really hard-working group. We’ve been down before. We just knew once we got one that we could come back. We got within one and just couldn’t get one more in the third [period].”

The third period rolled around and the big-bodied Rebels showed why they will be tough to beat when hosting the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup.

A questionable boarding call on former Rebels defenceman and Kootenay Ice import Mario Grman made a tall task even tougher less than five minutes into the final period.

Led by the big-bodied presence of 6-foot-3, 196-pound Adam Musil, the Rebels showed why they will be tough to beat when the time comes to host the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup.

Musil, an 18-year-old prospect of the St. Louis Blues, parked himself on Hoflin’s doorstep and cleaned up a loose puck only 26 seconds into the man advantage and the Rebels extended the lead to 4-2.

Less than five minutes later with Ice winger Austin Wellsby serving a slashing minor, the big Musil went right back to his office where he found another rebound opportunity to cash in on and put the game out of reach at 5-2.

“It was unfortunate in the third [period] with the penalty to Mario,” Pierce said. “That was a really tough one to swallow. They capitalize on that and it kind of put the nail in us.”

Between the pipes, Martin turned aside 19 of the 21 shots directed his way for his fifth victory of the season.

At the other end of the rink, the 20-year-old Hoflin was once again busy as he made 41 stops on 46 shots.

Wednesday’s loss marked the third time this season the native of Spruce Grove, Alta., has faced more than 45 shots in a game. The veteran netminder previously saw 46 shots in a 6-3 loss to the Medicine Hat Tigers on Oct. 16 and shortly after weathered a 43-shot barrage from the Tigers in a 4-3 victory on Nov. 6.

To call the Kootenay Ice (6-17-2-0) battered at this point is an understatement.

Pierce was left with nine regular forwards available for use Wednesday, rounding out the forward group to 10 bodies with Bryan Allbee — typically a defenceman — who served as the team’s second-line left winger.

“I told the guys, ‘You’re all being held to a higher standard because you’re all top-nine guys,'” Pierce said. “That’s as many forwards as you have. You want those minutes, you want to play in that role — everybody does. But that comes with a little bit of added pressure and expectation.

“Bryan has some offensive touch to his game and obviously we need that. He can make good reads offensively and I think he understands the game plan that way, too. It’s a huge sacrifice from Bryan and that’s what we’re going to need from lots of guys on our team.”

Wednesday’s loss snapped a modest two-game winning streak for the Ice, who jump on the bus to visit the Lethbridge Hurricanes  (14-9-0-0) Thursday at 7 p.m.

“We’ve got to remember [Wednesday] when we had success we followed the plan,” Pierce said, looking ahead to Thursday’s tilt in Lethbridge. “Nobody’s looking for style points here. We have to understand that. It’s not going to be pretty, but we need to expect to win games.

“If you approach it thinking you’ve already lost the game. You may as well not even get off the bus. To me, we expect to win. It doesn’t need to be pretty and it probably can’t be pretty, but we’ve got to remember the things that led to success [Wednesday].”

The Rebels (17-8-0-0) set off for Medicine Hat, where they take on the Tigers Friday evening.

Daily Townsman Three Stars:1) C Adam Musil, Rebels (2G)2) LW Ivan Nikolishin, Rebels (1G, 2A)3) C Vince Loschiavo, Ice (1G, 1A)

Notes: The Ice were without seven regulars Wednesday, including D Tyler King (knee), D Jason Wenzel (head), C Luke Philp (ankle), RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder), C Shane Allan (suspension), RW Zak Zborosky (lower body) and RW River Beattie (head). None are expected back for Thursday’s contest in Lethbridge… 17-year-old Ice affiliate LW Connor Barley made his debut after being recalled from the MJHL’s Selkirk Steelers Tuesday… The Rebels were without D Josh Mahura (lower body), D Kayle Doetzel (lower body) and F Braden Purtill (upper body)… Announced attendance Wednesday in Cranbrook was 1,750…