You know they want to. You know they can. Wide-open, no trap, no left-wing lock, throw caution into the wind and play some fire-wagon hockey, it does exist. And just when you thought it was going to happen, the game’s over and you almost look at the scoreboard in disbelief, it’s 3-2, in overtime no less.
The Kootenay Ice did their part, almost to a fault, in playing their offensive style that got them to the finals. The Red Deer Rebels however, weren’t cooperating. For what it lacks in austerity, it makes up in sheer edge-of-your-seat drama. It just isn’t pretty. “There was a lot of obstruction through the neutral zone,” said Coach Ryan McGill after the overtime victory in Game three. “But what do you do? This is the finals and there’s not going to be a lot of obstruction calls, and rightfully so. “That’s the beauty of the finals. It’s the team that’s more willing to get through all the little stuff that’s going to survive and it’s going to be no different next year, the year after that or the year after that. If we’re willing to survive those, things will be okay.”
Surprisingly, survivability hasn’t been the overwhelming theme of this series. In a league championship that featured two old Central division rivals that haven’t one ounce of love lost for each other, the hatred on the ice between the two just hasn’t been evident through the series’ first three games. To the contrary and to the letter of a Brent Sutter-coached hockey team, it’s been the team to make the last mistake that’s lost. On this night it was the Rebels who made the last mistake and it cost them. “They have last line change,” offered Rebel coach Brent Sutter who was determined to match Kootenay line for line all night long. “We were trying to be smart with our changes and get the right personnel with the right personnel. We had the right personnel on the ice with the tying goal and the overtime goal, the line was supposed to change (after the draw).
“You lose the draw and they start attacking while they’re coming to the bench. It produced basically a five on three when they came in our zone and that can’t happen. That’s something you expect a sixteen-yr-old kid to make the mistake like that, not a nineteen or twenty-yr-old.”
Indeed, it was a mistake that the Kootenay ICE and the 3950 in attendance at the Cranbrook Rec./Plex thought might never occur. The Rebels committed one of the few errors they made three minutes into the game when the defense sent a weak cross-ice pass that found its way onto an opportunistic Nigel Dawes who beat Rebel goalie Cam Ward low to the stick side three strides later. The Rebels tied the game two minutes later on a great individual effort by Boyd Gordon who undressed Kootenay d-man Steve Makway and B.J. Boxma for Red Deer’s first goal.
After a breathtaking first period that endeared itself to the back and forth action worthy of a championship series, the dreaded trap and a neutral zone that resembled more of a clogged drain reared its ugly head once again. Rebel forward Jeff Smith, who has made a habit of scoring big goals in the playoffs – he scored the Memorial Cup winner in Regina last year, flipped an unexpected shot at B.J. Boxma that fooled the netminder and got the Rebels a lead that they would happily sit back and guard like Fort Knox. It almost worked until Jarrett Stoll broke in and converted a Cole Fischer point shot behind Ward for the game tying goal.
ICE forward Richard Hamula, who scored the O.T.-winner in game one, agreed that the clutch and grab of the Rebels isn’t pretty to watch. Nor is it easy to play through. “It’s really tight out there,” said Hamula. “There’s not a lot of freewheeling but with our team’s speed, we have to try and get through that. They do hold up but we’ve got to fight through it.”
Hamula admitted though that even the high-octane Kootenay squad tends lock up the neutral zone. “Even our system, we tighten it all up in the neutral zone,” said Hamula of the trend of these WHL Finals. “We try to not let them come through with any speed and if we have to play the same system as them we will. It’s tight both ways. Personally I’d prefer a speed game with our team speed but we’ll take however they’re playing.”
Quick Hits – That high-powered offence of the ICE suffered a big blow early in game three when Kootenay sophomore Adam Taylor was lost for the season with a broken ankle and an unspecified knee injury. “Adam Taylor had an outstanding year and playoff,” said coach McGill. “It’s definitely going to hurt but we’ve got guys in that room that will step up.” Taylor was trying to get around Rebel defenseman Dion Phaneuf and lost an edge after the shot that sent into the end boards awkwardly . . . Rogers Sportsnet covered both games for the cable sports network and offered highlights on the station’s Pacific sportscast after the games. The Rec./Plex was scheduled to host a televised game but because there were no weekend dates in Cranbrook it was switched to Red Deer for Saturday’s game five. Broadcast time is 6:00 P.M. Game six, if necessary, goes Monday in Cranbrook.