Playoff Chase Tightens

By Jeff Bromley

The race for a WHL playoff spot creates teams that play desperation hockey. For about four and a half periods over the two games against the Lethbridge Hurricanes and the Kelowna Rockets, Kootenay ran into two clubs in desperation mode and it almost cost them four points. Points that’ll come in handy if Kootenay wants to open the 2002 edition of the WHL playoffs at the Cranbrook Rec./Plex.

Although secure in the fact that the Kootenay ICE have a B.C. Division playoff spot wrapped up, where exactly they will finish is still up for grabs. With only six games remaining in the regular season and the ICE seven points back of Wednesday’s visitors, the Division-leading Kamloops Blazers, first place is all but out of reach. Concentrating on keeping their ominous hold on second place, and thus home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs, is now of paramount importance. Saturday’s effort against the Hurricanes, a 2-0 loss, was only overshadowed by the effort produced by the club the next night against the Rockets. Putting Coach Ryan McGill in a precariously better mood than just twenty-four hours prior. “It’s a good thing you didn’t,” said McGill of the fact he reserved comment until after Sunday night’s game against Kelowna, a 4-2 win, a decidedly better result. “Two playoff-type games that we’ll talk about this week and the fact that teams are trying to slow us down as far as the game tempo is.

“We like to play a high-tempo game and both teams (Lethbridge and Kelowna) tried to slow the face-offs down and tonight they (the Rockets) did a good job of it and we got a little bit out of our element until the end of the second period when we got some jump and we got some momentum. We got some chances and took the game over and all four lines and six defensemen played really well.”

Tactics employed from both opponents carried two familiar themes – slowing down the play by clogging the neutral zone and something opposing clubs have tried all season long – physical intimidation. Evident by Sunday’s first frame that saw sixty-two minutes in penalties accumulated by both clubs in a period that took almost an hour to play.

“It bothers me because we like to play an up-tempo, high-level game,” said McGill of the intimidation factor used by the clubs. McGill admits however that his charges are going to have to get used to it and will be up to any challenge presented. “But that (the physical intimidation) is what’s going to happen in the playoffs and we have to learn from it.

“Lethbridge plays physical and they’re a big team. Tonight we were (more physical) but we got a little snake-bitten by their goalie. Two of the best power-plays in the league tonight and they were shutout, which is a credit to both team’s penalty-killing, tonight we got into those areas and did a good job.”

ICE forward Colin Sinclair, who chipped in with arguably his best performance this season with two assists, including a determined checking effort on the PK late in the second frame that forced a turnover and sprang Duncan Milroy for the winning goal while shorthanded, first star honors and a physical presence that answered the bell that the Rockets rang early in the contest. Sinclair knows that he and his teammates won’t back down from any intimidation but by the same token they must produce consistent effort’s night-in and night-out this late in the season. “We’ve got the guys in the room that can handle that stuff and everyone really sticks up for each other which is one important key on our club,” said Sinclair of the rough stuff aimed at derailing the run and gun style of the ICE. “As long as we stand behind each other I don’t think any team can touch us.”

And Saturday’s effort? A momentary lapse of, well, just about everything. “It seemed that we just didn’t come out with the emotion that we’ve had coming into other games. I think we made up for it tonight. We realized what we had to do.”

Quick Hits – Three wins by the Blazers or three loses by the ICE or any combination thereof and the Blazers can wrap up the B.C. Division crown . . . Cranbrook native and Lethbridge Hurricanes goaltender Logan Koopmans had himself a weekend he won’t soon forget. Friday Koopmans got the start against the nation’s number one club in the Red Deer Rebels that was nationally televised on CTVSportsNet. Although it was a 3-1 loss, Koopmans was a standout in the nets. The next night he managed to shutout the hometown club in front of a throng of friends and family, garnering first star honors. Not bad for the seventeen-yr-old who’s had an up and down season with a nagging groin injury that looks to be healed. “It’s fine. It hurts once in a while but it’s getting better,” said Koopmans who played for the Jr. B Columbia Valley Rockies of the KIJHL last season. “Being on national television you get pumped up for that and then in my hometown, it’s two reasons to be ready to go.” The Red Line Report, an independent ranking service of NHL Draft prospects has Koopmans rated 210th out of 230 players (European and North American skaters and goalies) eligible for this year’s draft.