Ice solid from top to bottom
Trade-deadline additions fitting right in on dominant WHL squad
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At first glance, the Winnipeg Ice are a solid hockey team. Look a little closer, however, and you’d be hard pressed to find any weaknesses in the lineup.
The squad is buoyed by confidence these days. It sits atop the Western Hockey League at 31-5-1 (63 points) and is on a major streak, collecting points in nine of its last 10 contests.
What was a dangerous group through the first half of the season is now a true force to be reckoned with following the trade deadline earlier this month. The Ice are 2-0-1 since general manager Matt Cockell acquired forwards Carson Latimer, Easton Armstrong and Zack Ostapchuk, one of the gems on the market.
The moves have paid immediate dividends.
Ostapchuk joined childhood friend and one of the longest-tenured Ice players, Owen Pederson, on the team’s top line. The duo has combined for two goals and five assists in three games together.
“It’s been really good. All the new guys have fit in real well,” Pederson said Friday morning, from the Rink Training Centre. “Ostapchuk is lucky enough to be a friend of mine and (Matthew) Savoie’s before he got traded here. So, to see him join us is really positive and guys are starting to click on the ice better now too.
“Everybody’s getting real comfortable and everything’s gelling really well.”
Winnipeg will host the Moose Jaw Warriors (28-14) for a pair of contests this weekend at Wayne Fleming Arena. The puck drops Saturday at 8:05 p.m., while Sunday’s matchup goes at 5 p.m.
Ostapchuk agreed the transition to his new squad has been made easier with Savoie, also a product of St. Albert, Alta., on the team, adding his friendship with Pederson (who grew up a stone’s throw away in Stony Plain) has contributed to their instant chemistry on the ice.
“Yeah, 100 per cent,” Ostapchuk said. “Because I feel like (Pederson and I) are comfortable with each other and we obviously skated together in the summer and all that. And we can hold each other accountable, too, because we’re not afraid to let each other know because we’re comfortable with each other.
“Its been really nice. Obviously a very, very skilled team we got here. Kind of a little bit of an adjustment for how everyone plays but I think I’m starting to figure it out and I’m having a lot of fun.”
There’s been no doubt in Pederson’s mind his good friend is the piece to take the Ice — which fell 4-1 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final series to the Edmonton Oil Kings last season — over the top.
“I think so. I think we were a nice power forward away from having a complete team and I think we got a piece in that,” Pederson said. “He can give us anything: he can put up numbers, he can shut down guys for us and I think he’ll really help.
“We’re confident. We know what type of team we have in this locker room and we know the things we can do and we’re just looking to go execute now and take it one game at a time.”
In the last two contests, the Alberta duo has been matched with another recent addition in Latimer, who was drafted by Ottawa in 2021, two rounds after the Senators took Ostapchuk. The 6-1 191-pound winger has not only added a speedy element but his physical style mimics that of his linemates, who both stand 6-3 and tip the scales at more than 200 pounds.
Ice head coach James Patrick has been duly impressed.
“I’ve really liked it,” said Patrick, a Winnipeg product who played 21 NHL seasons. “Probably more than anything, the size. It gives us three big bodies. Zack can play any type of game. He can be miserable to play against, he can make it hard on the other team’s best player. (Pederson is) a big body — I mean, it’s his fifth year with us. I use him killing penalties, in five-on-three situations, he’s kind of the first guy over the boards.
“Carson Latimer has great speed with some decent size, so the plan is probably as we move forward, when we get home ice, is to have them go head-to-head against the other team’s best line. And that frees up Savoie and (Conor) Geekie’s line — someone’s going to get a real advantage matchup.”
Patrick said the deep lineup offers him less to worry about when matching lines against opponents. At the same time, there’s more worries about balancing ice time among a swath of high-end talent.
The bench boss had to look no further than Armstrong, who tallied 13 goals as a member of the Regina Pats this season before being dealt to Winnipeg. Much of his damage came on the power play, but due to the Ice’s depth, he’s left without much opportunity when the team has the man advantage.
“I told him I’m gonna get him his minutes and if one guy is in the box or something, he’ll be the first guy to fill in,” Patrick said.
Sure enough, such an instance arose in the team’s last game (an 8-1 win) against the host Prince Albert Raiders. Armstrong took full advantage of his opportunity, potting a power-play marker to extend the Ice’s lead.
“We have a lot of depth — four lines that can play against any line. When I look at the team — and there is a bit of comparison to last year — but with the moves we made, I think we have three top-end centres and the three guys we got — and it’s already showed,” Patrick said.
“There’s been a different line each night that’s prevailed, yet, we’ve gotten contributions from everybody.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.