*This is a Kootenay Ice game recap that I wrote for the Cranbrook Townsman.*
When a hockey coach is speechless and there isn’t a championship trophy nearby, it’s usually not a very good sign.
After losing 6-2 for the second straight game at home, in a frustrating battle with the Moose Jaw Warriors, coach Luke Pierce couldn’t quite find the words to describe how he was feeling.
“We’ve got to take some time to think about things and where we’re at and what we need to do here,” Pierce said when asked about his overall thoughts on the game. “I wish I had a quick answer or quick fix for it, but it’s going to take some time. “
After emphasizing the importance of a better start after their loss to Medicine Hat on Wednesday, the Ice had perhaps their worst opening minute of the season.
Rookie netminder Jakob Walter was given the start against the number two team in the Central Division but his night was over just three and a half minutes in.
WHL goal-scoring leader Jayden Halbgewachs opened the scoring at the 30-second mark after a cross-crease pass from Brayden Burke got Walter sliding leaving him with an empty net tap-in.
The goal came off a turnover from the Ice’s top line.
“The turnover 20 seconds in [was] from a veteran player and a leader on our team,” Pierce said. “We need better than that. Our expectations are way higher.”
Brett Howden doubled the score 10 seconds later with a high shot assisted by Halbgewachs and Burke. Halbgewachs would then find the back of the net again at three and a half minutes in, ending Walter’s night.
In relief, Payton Lee was sharp and made several spectacular stops while saving all nine shots he faced before the first intermission.
Although Moose Jaw got on the board again early in the second period, with Tristin Langan redirecting a point shot and fooling Lee, the Ice generated more pressure in the middle portion of the game than they did in the beginning.
Max Patterson got the team their first goal of the night six minutes into the frame, taking a pass from Jake Elmer and going high on Warriors goalie Brody Willms.
Despite positive sequences, Kootenay ended the period by giving up another goal as Halbgewachs connected with Howden again for a 5-2 lead going into intermission two.
The third got off to a hot start for Kootenay. Keenan Taphorn sprung his twin brother Kaeden on a breakaway just over a minute in and he went five-hole for his first ever goal at the home arena.
It was a proud moment, but not under ideal circumstances.
“It felt great,” Kaeden said. “The crowd was great today, I just wish we could’ve given them something more.”
After the Taphorn-to-Taphorn goal, the game took a turn towards nastiness. Ice captain Cale Fleury made an enormous hip check that eventually sent Branden Klatt to the penalty box for retaliating.
“I think it was a clean hit and the refs did too, because they didn’t call a penalty,” Fleury said of the incident. “I guess [Moose Jaw] didn’t really like it, but I can’t really control that.”
Besides a goal from Luka Burzan at seven minutes in, the third period was dominated by questionable hits, shoving matches, and a frustrated Payton Lee.
“[The Warriors] kind of acted a little bit unfairly [after my hit] and they took a run at [Lee] and then at the end of the game they grabbed onto him again,” Fleury said. “We’ve got to do something about that. We can’t let that happen [and were too] soft at the end of the game.”
Lee was noticeably incensed after the final buzzer, having to be physically restrained by a linesman until he was off the ice. Pierce thought the anger was deeper than just a frustration with Moose Jaw’s actions.
“99.9% of the time that [Lee]’s here, whether it’s practice, gym, games, he’s here to compete, and for some reason, that’s not rubbing off on some guys as much as it should,” Pierce said. “Tonight, he went in when it was 3-0 after a minute and [stood] on his head with very little response from our group.
“I don’t blame him [for being so upset]. I’m sure he would’ve liked to turn some of that onto his own teammates.”
Lee wasn’t the only one who was steamed at the end of the night. Pierce himself displayed more anger than he typically does during a game, with plenty of yelling directed at the opposition’s bench boss.
“I think him getting fired up like that just shows that he still cares, even if the game is out of hand or we’re losing,” Fleury said. “He still cares about us and trying to keep us safe. You know the coach on the other side maybe was doing some questionable stuff, so he dealt with that the way he did.”
While Pierce was mostly at a loss for words on the reasons for his team’s disappointing effort, and especially their start, Fleury had some ideas.
“I feel like some of the guys on the team were thinking about a week off and thought that meant, they can just quit right now,” the captain said. “I had a rough start too, so I can’t really blame the rest of the guys. It starts with all the leaders. We didn’t play that well today. In the room, we’ve just got to try and snap it off.”
The Ice’s next game isn’t until February 11, so they have a week away from game action before facing the Prince Albert Raiders at home.
“I think it’ll be beneficial for sure,” Kaeden Taphorn said on the gap in the schedule. “Getting our minds set back and working on some aspects of our game that we can improve.”
For Pierce, while there won’t be any games, it won’t be a time for rest.
“We’ve got a ton of work to do [and] we’ll get started right away on that on Monday,” he said. “I think we’ll go back to hockey basics, you know a team thing. I think you’re struggling and it starts to fracture your group a little bit.
“We’ve got to get them back together and make sure that we’re all on the same page and get it together. It doesn’t get any easier for us so we’ve got to find a solution.”
With the loss — their fourth straight — the Ice are now only one point ahead of Prince Albert for last place in the WHL after 54 games.