Tigers too tough to tame for the ICE

By Jeff Bromley
In what amounted to be a game of paramount importance for the Kootenay ICE if they have any hope of catching the WHL leading Red Deer Rebels and staving off the surging Calgary Hitmen, the ICE were looking for the automatic two points on Sunday night against the Medicine Hat Tigers. If parity throughout the WHL means anything, two points are never automatic, no matter who you’re playing. Playing against a team that up until Sunday night’s contest had only four wins on the road all season long, the ICE melted in front of the hometown crowd suffering a 4-3 defeat.

In perhaps thinking that a game against the Central Division cellar-dwellers would be an automatic ‘W’ in the standings, the ICE were missing one glaring aspect of their game – defense. Struggling to find the outlet pass out of their own zone all night, turnovers, resulting in at least two of Medicine Hat’s four goals played a key role in the Tiger win. Looking like a man visibly frustrated on the lack of defensive play of his charges, Coach Ryan McGill didn’t have to think hard to find reasons for the loss. “I thought we as a team had a lot of chances to score goals – we just didn’t and I thought our defensemen as a group struggled tonight”, said McGill. “That was the bottom line. Our forwards gave us the chances to win the game and we really struggled behind our blueline. It’s mental breakdowns. As a group we didn’t make any direct passes, we panicked with the puck, we just weren’t focused as a group.”

Due to somewhat of a quirk in the schedule, this game was only the third in the season series of eight between the two clubs. Including Friday’s return tilt against the Tigers, the ICE face this squad five more times between now and end of the season. That, and the fact that these are two points that the ICE must win in the chase for the division title was not lost on the beleaguered ICE coach. “They (the remaining games) are very important. We blew two points. We can’t afford, with the situation we’re in right now, to blow two points to teams that are lower than us in the standings,” said McGill. “That’s not to say that Medicine Hat’s not a good team. They played hard but we can’t give away points in our own building to teams that are below us.”

For the Medicine Hat Tigers’ Coach Bob Loucks this game was significant in the fact that the win gave the respected bench boss his 300th win in the WHL. A lofty goal as that might be, Coach Loucks thoughts were more so that the Tigers got the win. “First and foremost is that we won the hockey game. It’s nice to get 300 but the focal point has to be the players, they got us the win,” said Loucks. For Loucks and the Tigers, there is a light at the end of a dark tunnel that has been the bleak play of the Tigers the past few seasons. The Tigers have been steadily improving and are winning on a more consistent basis now. Could the playoffs be in the realm of possibility? Coach Loucks is cautiously optimistic. “We want to make the playoffs obviously but I think that if we’re looking too far down the road, with our team and the season that they’ve had if they start to slip a little bit then it could play on their minds,” said Loucks. “We also have to have three other teams that don’t play very well for us to get in. Our chances are remote at best but we’re going to keep plugging away and see what happens.”

To the Tigers credit the club saw the trading deadline go by without making a deal that would trade any one of their hot commodities. Signifying further the commitment the club has in keeping the young squad together. “We could have made a couple of trades I think had we wanted to but we felt that the players other teams wanted might have helped their teams but it would’ve hurt ours too much,” said Loucks. “The young guys aren’t going to grow without the older guys around and we felt that it was important to try an keep some stability here, show some continuity here and let these guys grow as a team.”

That old Black Magic – Kootenay ICE super-sophomore Dan Blackburn will be a busy man in the coming weeks. This week Blackburn, along with Zdenek Blatny and Jarret Stoll will travel to Guelph, Ont. to play in the second leg of the CHL’s new all-star format. It’ll be the WHL’s Eastern Conference against the OHL’s Western Conference. The game is televised on CTV Sportsnet. After that it’s back to being the last line of defense (and lately, the only line of defense) for the Kootenay ICE for a couple of weeks before traveling to Calgary for the CHL’s Top Prospects game on Feb. 7th. Along with highly touted draft prospect Jason Spezza, the big story brewing for this year’s prospect game will be the head to head meeting of 2001 NHL Draft goaltender rivals Blackburn and Pascal Leclaire of the Halifax Mooseheads. Blackburn and Leclaire have traded places twice on Central Scouting’s prospect list with Blackburn getting the edge at the beginning of the season and Leclaire moving ahead of the Canmore, Alta. native by mid-season’s report. Look for each goaltender’s performance at the prospect game to be key in their respective CSB final draft rankings.

Big Mac Back?? – Officially, there still isn’t a decision out of Chicago on Steve McCarthy’s destination once the two week conditioning stint in Norfolk finishes. Will he be staying in Chicago or returning to junior with the ICE? February 1st is the date when the ICE will know according to Kootenay G.M. Bob Tory. Rumors out of Chicago are circulating wildy that the decision has already been made and that McCarthy could be back in an ICE uniform as early as Friday’s game against Medicine Hat. Time will tell but after Sunday’s game, the ICE blueline could certainly use him and everything that the talented Trail native brings to the table…..Following Friday’s night’s grudge match against the Tigers, the Calgary Hitmen are in town on Saturday.