Ice shake off rust to top Tigers

WHL leaders notch 50th win for second consecutive season


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It was a historic return to home sweet home for the Winnipeg Ice.

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It was a historic return to home sweet home for the Winnipeg Ice.

The junior club left fans with little nail left to bite as it narrowly defeated the Medicine Hat Tigers 3-1 at Wayne Fleming Arena on Tuesday night.

Winnipeg improved to 50-9-1 on the campaign in the process, becoming the first Western Hockey League team to eclipse the 100-point threshold this year, and the first club since the Kelowna Rockets (2013-15) with consecutive 50-win seasons. It’s the also first time the Ice accomplished the feat in franchise history.

The Tigers dropped to 26-25-9 on the year (61 points), hurting the club as it continues to jockey for one of the final playoff spots.

Zach Benson and Matthew Savoie found the back of the net while Conor Geekie added an empty-netter for the hosts. Goaltender Daniel Hauser stood tall to pick up his 33rd win of the year on the back of 27 saves.

“Historically, the first game back after a long road trip is really tough for the home team,” said head coach James Patrick. “Sometimes you get a letdown, sometimes you let your foot off the gas. For us, we had a really tough, long road trip with fatigue, a lot of guys not 100 per cent healthy. We took the last few days off… so I knew there was going to be a bit of rust and it felt like that in the first period.

“Daniel Hauser kept us in it. He was outstanding, he deserved the first star.”

Winnipeg returned to home ice after a 10-game road trip that saw it go 8-2. Despite faltering twice on the way home, the Ice entered Tuesday’s matchup 12-2 in their last 14 contests, scoring a remarkable 6.07 goals per game during a stretch that dates back to Feb. 8.

A back-and-forth first frame saw several great chances from both sides and a 13-9 shot advantage for the visitors, but one goal from each side.

The Tigers drew first-blood midway through the first frame when Shane Smith found himself alone in front of the net and snapped a shot over Hauser’s right shoulder for his 19th goal of the year.

Head coach James Patrick promptly called on his top line to strike back, and they obliged. Less than three minutes later, Benson, Winnipeg’s leading scorer, smartly banked the puck off Tigers goaltender Evan May’s left pad from behind the net to record his 36th marker of the season and knot the game.

Benson, one of the top prospects in this summer’s NHL Draft, reached 98 points on the campaign and only trails Regina Pats phenom Connor Bedard (123 points) in points.

It was a power struggle for both clubs with the man-advantage in this one. While it was far shocking that the Tigers, who carry the 16th-ranked power play in the league, went 0-for-4 a man up, the typically high-scoring Ice continued their own slide, going 0-for-3 on the night.

It’s become a recent theme for the club, which entered Tuesday’s tilt just four-for-28 on the power play in its last six games.

Fortunately, Winnipeg’s fifth-ranked penalty-kill picked up the slack. Late in the second stanza, with the Tigers riding their fourth power-play of the game, Savoie picked up a loose puck in the defensive zone before flying up the ice on a two-on-one with Benson. In the blink of an eye, the young sniper fired a perfect shot under May’s blocker for his fifth short-handed marker of the season, 34th overall.

“I think the special teams is definitely a big part of our game, the penalty kill in particular,” said Savoie, who also recorded an assists on Benson’s goal. “Recently, we’ve been really going on it, scoring goals and creating offence, too. Any energy we can get out of our penalty kill, we’ll take it.”

Added Patrick, “Special teams are so important coming into the playoffs. I thought there was some OK energy on the power play, but we still didn’t get it done. All year long, our PK has been real good and it’s been an offensive weapon for us.”

While a remarkable feat, the Ice don’t plan to stop at 50 wins, and the schedule would suggest the team is far from done adding wins before the playoffs begin later this month. Winnipeg has eight games remaining on the dwindling regular season schedule, with seven of those contests against teams that rank in the bottom three of the eastern conference.

“As a team, we want to keep building toward our goal — getting into playoff form and making sure we’re playing the right way every game and not taking any nights off. That’s been big thing for our group, just making sure our systems are intact and we’re really focusing on it,” Savoie said.

“Coming down the stretch, practices will be huge and just making sure everything’s cleaned up.”

The Ice are back in action Friday against the Edmonton Oil Kings at Wayne Fleming Arena, 7 p.m. puck drop.

Twitter: @jfreysam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.

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