It’s now or never for Ice Season hangs in balance heading into Game 5 of WHL final against Thunderbirds
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The situation is simple for the Winnipeg Ice: the club is backed into a corner with zero margin for error.
The only way out? Win.
Oh, how the tables have turned on the junior club, competing in its first Western Hockey League championship since relocating to the Manitoba capital in 2019.
Life was good just a few games ago when the Eastern Conference champs dominated the first 40 minutes of the series opener to the tune of a three-goal lead, then hung on for dear life in the final period to secure a 3-2 victory over the Seattle Thunderbirds in Game 1 on home ice.
The stacked T-Birds, playing in their second-consecutive WHL championship, have since flaunted their experience and firepower, however, outscoring the Ice 14-7 in the last three contests to assume a 3-1 series lead heading into Friday’s potential series-clinching Game 5 in Kent, Wash., (puck drop is 9 p.m. CT).
There is no doubt the Ice can hang with the Western Conference champs, who boast a staggering five first-round NHL draft picks (nine drafted players in total) on the roster. Outside of an underwhelming 6-3 defeat in Game 3, the losses have come despite some great efforts and dominant stretches put together by the Ice.
“We knew coming into it, we needed to win in this building,” said Owen Pederson after Wednesday’s loss in Game 4. “So, looking to next game, we have a chance to bring the series back to Winnipeg and if we can play how we played tonight, we’ll have a good chance.”
Added Zach Benson: “We got to play desperate hockey. I thought we played a great game (Wednesday) and I think we just have to continue playing that way. We have to bury our chances and we just have to compete.”
Therein lies one of the club’s biggest hurdles heading into Friday’s contest. The Ice have yet to rattle goaltender Thomas Milic, who is playing out of his mind this post-season, notching 15 wins and a .931 save percentage while allowing just two goals per outing, all of which lead the league.
The Ice, who paced the WHL with 325 goals for this season (4.77 per game), have yet to score more than three goals in a game this series. For what it’s worth, the Thunderbirds are the best defensive squad in the league, allowing just 2.27 goals during the regular season.
“I think we need more second and third chances,” said head coach James Patrick on Thursday, which was a day off for the team. “Maybe we haven’t generated those or we haven’t worked enough at those.
“We have talked about trying to take away the goalie’s eyes, a little bit better net-front presence. Maybe that’d go hand-in-hand if we were a little better in that area, might give us second and third rebound chances.”
The Ice will also need to ensure they don’t compound mistakes. They’ve been snakebitten by quick, consecutive goals on two occasions, conceding two goals in eight seconds in Game 2 and three goals in 45 seconds in Game 3. The sudden shift in momentum has been near-impossible for the team to overcome in both instances.
The Ice generated a bang-bang sequence of their own in Game 4, but a goal by Carson Latimer was overturned after officials deemed he batted the puck in with his elbow. Patrick said after the game that Latimer swore the puck bounced off the shaft of his stick. Even more costly was that it took a lengthy review to reach a decision, which killed any momentum the Ice had built during what was possibly the club’s best stretch of the game.
That left things knotted at two heading into the third period when Arizona Coyotes draft pick, Dylan Guenther, who won a WHL championship with the Edmonton Oil Kings last year, broke the deadlock with 12:13 remaining.
There also remains the issue of special teams, a topic that has been beaten to death this series but continues to be noteworthy heading into a potentially fateful Game 5. After a perfect start to the series on the penalty kill in two home games, the Ice have allowed three goals in Seattle’s last nine attempts.
That’s brought the unit’s efficiency on the road down to an eye-watering 57.1 per cent in the playoffs. The club’s power play has gone ice-cold, too, scoring just twice on 16 attempts in the series (12.5 per cent).
“You can say they scored a power-play goal and we didn’t,” Patrick said, referring to the difference in Game 4.
“Mind you, I liked the chances we created on the power play. We got in clean — we really worked on our entries and really worked on our quick support — and we generated chances.”
Before the series began, Patrick maintained the team that defended the opposition’s top players the best would win the series. With his team’s season hanging in the balance, his sights are set on the details making the biggest difference.
“I think how tight three of the four games have been, the depth of each team can make a difference, a save here or there can make a difference.”
And his message to players, now in a do-or-die situation, is a bit different than it has been.
“We talked about trying to embrace the moment. The building is very loud, it’s junior hockey at its finest as far as the atmosphere (goes). Even though we’re the visiting team, we’ve talked about embracing it, using it as motivation,” Patrick said.
“Enjoy this, this is the time of our lives. It doesn’t get any better than this. We love to play and this is the highest competition at the highest level that all of our players can experience right now.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.