The turnaround is on in Cranbrook as the Kootenay Ice are one of the WHL's hottest teams at the holiday break. Above: Teddy bears and bags filled with toques and mittens rain down at Western Financial Place Dec. 5 after Jaedon Descheneau (#14

Total turnaround in Cranbrook

The Kootenay Ice are headed in the right direction as one of the WHL's hottest teams at the holiday break

Taylor Rocca

The holiday season provides time for reflection — a chance to look back upon failures and accomplishments. The Kootenay Ice are in the midst of a 10-day holiday break, leaving plenty of time to reflect upon the first half of the 2014-15 WHL campaign.

———-

With 35 games in the books and 37 still to go, the Kootenay Ice (18-17-0-0) are right in the thick of the WHL’s Eastern Conference playoff hunt, holding down the conference’s second wildcard slot.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s certainly not the be-all, end-all,” said Kootenay Ice head coach Ryan McGill Dec. 16.

“We’ve come a long way.”

After struggling to a 3-13-0-0 record from Sept. 19 through Oct. 31, things couldn’t get much worse for McGill and his troops.

One bright spot for the team during the dark days early on came when the Montreal Canadiens saw fit to return 20-year-old French forward Tim Bozon to the Ice.

The Habs assigned the native of Valbonne, France, to the Ice on Oct. 10, though the veteran goal-scorer wouldn’t make a true impact until November as he battled a lower-body injury.

Less than a month after Bozon was returned, captain Sam Reinhart rejoined the Ice following a nine-game stint with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

“When Sam [Reinhart] and Bozon came back, it just put everybody right into a role that they could handle,” McGill said. “Not only the ice time, but their role as far as five-on-five play goes; power play; penalty kill — it just put everybody in the right spot.”

Combine Reinhart’s return with the revitalized health of both Bozon and defenceman Rinat Valiev, and the makings for a turnaround were pulsating through Western Financial Place and the Kootenay Ice dressing room.

Since Nov. 1, the Ice are 15-4-0-0 and have collected 30 points in the standings. The Kelowna Rockets (15-4-3-0, 33 points) are the only WHL team to have collected more points than the Ice since Nov. 1, leaving McGill’s squad as the hottest team in the league’s tight Eastern Conference since Halloween came to pass.

“We’re just controlling the puck,” said Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin of the team’s turnaround. “For the most part, we’re sticking to the game plan. We’re wearing teams down [and] getting greasy goals.

“Our power play has been good for us and the defense has come a long way. As a unit, from the goalie out, we’re still trying to get better, but it’s definitely come a long way for us.”

Having made up ground on Central Division rivals Red Deer, Calgary and Edmonton, the Ice will face a critical stretch of hockey upon returning from the holiday break as they play six consecutive games against Central Division opponents.

Up front

With production of at least a point-per-game from forwards Jaedon Descheneau (18-23-41 in 33 games), Luke Philp (13-22-35 in 34 games), Bozon (13-14-27 in 20 games) and Reinhart (8-19-27 in 15 games), the Ice offense came alive after a sluggish start.

The team was scoring at a paltry rate of two goals-per-game in 16 contests prior to Nov. 1. Since then, the Ice have more than doubled scoring output with 4.05 goals per game in 19 outings.

For comparison’s sake, the Brandon Wheat Kings — the WHL’s top-scoring team with 160 goals heading into the break — are scoring at a rate of 4.57 goals-per-game this season.

Apart from getting top-end production, McGill is also seeing scoring support from role players like Levi Cable (8-5-13 since Nov. 1), Zak Zborosky (6-7-13 since Nov. 1) and Matt Alfaro (3-8-11 since Nov. 1).

“So far, they’ve been great,” McGill said. “Our character has been excellent since [Reinhart]’s gone. We’ve had contributions from everybody throughout the lineup and that needs to continue.”

On the backend

A 360-degree turnaround doesn’t happen without improvement at both ends of the rink.

In addition to more than doubling offensive output, the Ice have cutback on activity in their own end of the rink. After allowing a crippling 4.44 goals per game through Oct. 31, the Ice slashed the goals-against rate by nearly a goal and half after Nov. 1. In 19 tests since the calendar flipped past October, the Ice have allowed 3.05 goals per game.

Import defenceman Rinat Valiev certainly helped in that area upon returning from injury Oct. 24. The native of Nizhnekamsk, Russia, battled a knee injury after attending Toronto Maple Leafs training camp in September, but has since steadied the team’s transition game while also providing a heavy blast from the point on the power play.

Valiev hasn’t been the only standout for McGill, as defenceman Tyler King has been playing some of the best hockey of his WHL career in recent weeks.

“We never gave up hope,” King said Dec. 16. “We got Sam [Reinhart] and Bozon back, which are huge additions to our lineup. After that, we kind of got things rolling.

“We can be as good as we want and we can take it as far as we want.”

The 19-year-old native of Pilot Butte, Sask., is on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points, (4-11-15 through 31 games) and has been steady in keeping opponents in check.

With Valiev out east with Team Russia at the World Junior Championship and Dylan Overdyk still battling concussion issues, the blue line is in need of reinforcements. Tanner Faith is still nursing an upper-body injury, but his expected return to action was tentatively slated for Dec. 27 prior to the holiday break. Even with the return of Faith, the banged-up blue line could benefit from some support.

Between the pipes

Only one name matters in the Kootenay Ice crease as of the holiday break and that name is Wyatt Hoflin.

Keelan Williams is the forgotten netminder, though to no fault of his own.

Dating all the way back to Oct. 24, the 19-year-old Hoflin has started 23 consecutive games for McGill and the Ice at the holiday break.

“It definitely feels really good [to be the go-to guy],” Hoflin said Dec. 16. “It’s a change for me and I’m adapting pretty well. There’s been some games where I’d like to have been a little bit better.

“I’ve handled it good so far. I just need make sure I continue it in the second half of the season.

The native of Spruce Grove, Alta., is set to break the Kootenay Ice franchise record for consecutive appearances by a goaltender (25), which is held by Todd Mathews (2009).

Hoflin leads the WHL in two major goaltending categories at the holiday break, including shots faced (1,014) and minutes played (1,868), while sitting second in saves (910). Only Swift Current’s Landon Bow (913) has stopped more pucks than Hoflin, but only by a sliver.

What’s next?

The Kootenay Ice return to action Saturday, Dec. 27 when they host the Calgary Hitmen (19-12-1-2) at Western Financial Place.

“We can’t come out slow,” said defenceman Tyler King Dec. 16, looking forward to his team’s next stretch of hockey. “We’ve got to take it one game at a time and do what we can.

“We know we’re going to be on the road and there’s going to be good atmospheres out there. We’ve got to win some of those games.”

After Saturday’s home game against the Hitmen, the Ice visit Calgary for a rematch the following day. From there, they continue on the road to Medicine Hat (Dec. 30) before returning to Red Deer (Jan. 2) and Edmonton (Jan. 3).

If six straight games against difficult Central Division opponents doesn’t pose a tall enough task, playing four of those six games on the road will surely prove a test of the team’s character.

“The second half is always tougher,” Bozon said Dec. 16. “We’re still in that playoff spot, but we’re coming up close to fifth or sixth place and that’s what we want.”

On top of it all, captain Sam Reinhart — recently named an alternate captain for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship — will remain out east in search of gold through Jan. 5. The native of North Vancouver will miss all but the last game of that stretch, a Jan. 9 home date against the Red Deer Rebels.

“The biggest thing is we’ve got to get our rest, McGill said. “We’re going to play a lot of games from the end of December all the way into Feb. 1.

“We have to make sure that we’re a detailed hockey team. We have to make sure we really stick to the program because of how many games we play. It could make or break us.”

The Ice play 17 games between Dec. 27 and Feb. 1.

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