The Kootenay Ice battled right to the bitter end Wednesday night at Western Financial Place, but when the final buzzer sounded, a more experienced Brandon Wheat Kings squad found two goals in the third period to claim a 4-2 victory.
“The second period was really our undoing and gave them a ton of momentum and energy,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, following Wednesday’s loss. “It really wore our guys out. Our defencemen, especially, were exhausted. We just didn’t have the energy for the third that we needed.
“We maybe got ahead of ourselves after a real good first period.”
The Ice carried a one-goal lead into the second period courtesy a marker from Austin Wellsby in the opening 20 minutes, as he returned to the lineup after missing five games with an upper-body injury.
The 18-year-old native of Chilliwack started the scoring, cruising through the slot before taking a nifty pass from import Roman Dymacek and depositing a backhand past Wheat Kings goaltender Logan Thompson for a 1-0 Ice lead.
Wheat Kings defenceman James Shearer and Ice winger Jared Legien exchanged goals midway through the second period before Brandon blueliner Kale Clague cleaned up a rebound late in the proceedings to send both teams to their respective dressing rooms knotted 2-2 after 40 minutes.
Legien’s goal was his first since Jan. 23 at Spokane and fourth of the season.
While the score was an even draw through two periods, the Wheat Kings racked up 18 shots in the second while holding the hosts to a mere two attempts.
“It feels good to be able to contribute for my team, it’s been a while,” Legien said Wednesday. “I was pretty pumped up.
“We got away from the things we were doing well in the first two [periods] — getting pucks deep, getting behind them and getting to the body. We got away from that and tried to get into the back-and-forth game with them.”
The Wheat Kings continued to dictate the pace when the third period rolled around, outshooting the Ice 11-4 over the final 20 minutes of play.
Nolan Patrick was left all alone in the slot on the man advantage and the 17-year-old pivot made no mistake, burning a hot shot past goaltender Wyatt Hoflin to give Brandon its first lead of the night only 3:36 into the third period.
“For most of the year, we’ve had one of the best road records, to get two losses on the road [in Prince Albert and Saskatoon] is tough, but the bounce back today was huge,” Patrick said Wednesday.
Patrick’s tally — his 36th of the season — set the Wheat Kings up to snap a two-game road skid, which included losses to the Raiders (3-2, Feb. 21) and Blades (6-5 in OT, Feb. 22).
“Jayce Hawryluk has been playing unbelievable lately and he gave me a great pass,” Patrick said, recounting his power-play marker. “I just took a quick shot, far side blocker and it was lucky enough to go in.”
Exactly five minutes after taking the lead, John Quenneville found himself alone with time and space, sending another quick shot past Hoflin and the Wheat Kings were ahead 4-2.
After that, the visitors put the game into shutdown mode and the hosts simply couldn’t find an answer.
Despite the outcome, the 21-year-old Hoflin appeared intent on exacting revenge for the 11-1 shellacking the Wheat Kings handed his club last Wednesday, doing everything in his power to give the Ice a shot at victory.
“He’s relishing every chance he gets to play,” Pierce said of Hoflin. “He came to me earlier and we talked about his starts. It would be real easy for him to just say, ‘Let Declan [Hobbs, backup goaltender] take it and I’ll sub in when you want me.’ But he wants to play every single night.
“He knows what’s at stake for him. It’s his last opportunity and he’s going to play every game like it’s his Game 7 of the final. He’s the least of our concerns. We need more guys to have that type of approach and realize your career ends up being pretty short.”
In the first period, Hoflin snared a hot wrist shot off the stick of Tyler Coulter, before then breaking out the leather to snap up a Macoy Erkamps point shot. If that wasn’t enough, Hoflin denied Patrick with a right toe stop as the Wheat Kings leading scorer was allowed to walk in front untouched from below the goal line.
Hoflin continued to battle in the blue paint come the second period.
Late in the equation, Ty Lewis got loose in the slot, only to be rejected twice by Hoflin in tight. With the Ice netminder down and out, the puck popped loose to Ivan Provorov at the point, who wasted no time in sending the biscuit right back where it came from. Hoflin managed to stack the pads and swallow up the puck, making his third glorious save of the frenetic sequence.
At the end of the night, Hoflin made 36 saves. Thompson turned aside 13 pucks at the other end, collecting his 15th victory of the campaign.
The loss drops the Ice to 10-45-5-0 on the season, while the Wheat Kings improve to 38-18-3-2.
Next up, the Wheat Kings travel to Lethbridge to face the Hurricanes (40-19-1-1) Friday night in a showdown that could go a long ways in determining the top seed in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
“It was one of our goals at the start of the year to be first overall in the league,” Patrick said. “Giving up those points lately, we slipped back a little bit. But if we keep pushing, we can be first in our division.
“[The Hurricanes] are a fast team. If we use our speed, we can match with them fine. If we play a good defensive game, we’ll be able to handle them fine.”
Heading into Friday’s contest, the Wheat Kings sit first in the East Division and one point behind the Hurricanes for top spot in the Eastern Conference.
On a league-wide scale, the Kelowna Rockets (42-16-3-0, 87 points) are six points ahead of the Wheat Kings in the race for the WHL regular-season crown.
The Ice play host to the Edmonton Oil Kings (26-28-6-1) Friday night at Western Financial Place.
Notes: The Ice scratched D Mario Grman, RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder), RW Austin Gray and C Dylan Stewart (concussion) Wednesday… Announced attendance in Cranbrook was 1,821 Wednesday…