The only thing standing between the Winnipeg Ice and a blowout victory over the Swift Current Broncos Monday night was Isaac Poulter.
Fortunately for the Ice, the 19-year-old goaltender wasn’t perfect.
Poulter withstood the Winnipeg onslaught for the opening 40 minutes, keeping his team within a goal, but third-period markers by James Form and Zach Benson led to a 5-2 Ice triumph at the WHL’s East Division hub in Regina.
The Ice outshot the Broncos 45-18, won 32 of 59 faceoffs and punished Swift Current’s back end with a suffocating forecheck. But Owen Williams’ goal with one second left in the opening period gave the Broncos a 1-0 lead and threatened to erase Winnipeg’s early domination.
"I wasn’t going to get mad because we had as complete a period as we’ve had in a long time, with contributions from everyone and all four lines," said Ice head coach James Patrick of the Williams goal.
"We just said, ‘Hey can we keep playing like that?’ We had so much possession time, we got 17 shots on net (in the first period) and I still wanted more shots because I felt they were blocking a lot of shots or we were looking for a better play."
Patrick’s players heeded his request.
Winnipeg got contributions from its dependable group of veteran forwards but young players did their part as well. Benson, a 15-year-old rookie left-winger from Chilliwack, B.C., swatted a shoulder-level pass from Conor Geekie past Poulter to tie the game 1-1 early in the second period.
Benson added his second of the game and eighth of the season early in the third, hammering a one-timer into the net after a setup from Michael Milne. The Milne-Geekie-Benson trio combined for seven points.
"I came in here with the mindset just to work hard and I really thought I was just gonna practise and maybe get into a couple of games," said Benson via Zoom.
Patrick still can’t quite believe how impactful Benson has become.
"I do laugh a little on the inside because this kid with braces who looks like he’s 12 — man is he a smart hockey player," said Patrick. "He’s got skill but he’s got hockey sense, I tell you. A lot of that comes from there, he knows where to go, and his stick is outstanding."
Milne, with his fourth, and Peyton Krebs, with his 11th, also scored for Winnipeg. The Ice, third in the East, improved to 14-5-1-0 while seventh-place Swift Current fell to 4-15-1-0.
Krebs, who also chipped in with an assist, extended his point-scoring streak to 19 games, two shy of the franchise record established by Mike Comrie in 2000-01 as a member of the Kootenay Ice.
Krebs now leads the WHL scoring race with 37 points.
Caleb Wyrostok had the other goal for the Broncos.
Next up for Winnipeg is a Wednesday meeting with the Moose Jaw Warriors. Game time is 9 p.m.
BLUE-LINES: Winnipeg’s Carson Lambos, Nolan Orzeck and Rhys Raeside were out with injury. Goaltender Daniel Hauser, defenceman Brandt Young and forward Evan Waldie were healthy scratches.
Three stars: 1. Michael Milne, Winnipeg (three points, plus-3); 2. Zach Benson, Winnipeg (two goals); 3. Peyton Krebs, Winnipeg (two points, plus-4).
Winnipeg went 0-for-5 on the power play, only the third time that the WHL-leading unit had gone scoreless during the hub season. Swift Current went 0-for-4. Ice goaltender Gage Alexander improved to 5-3-0-0.
POST-SEASON BLUES: It came as no surprise Monday when the WHL announced that league playoffs in its four divisions have been wiped out.
"When we returned to play in February, we set out with the intention of completing a 24-game regular-season schedule, knowing adjustments would be needed along the way," said commissioner Ron Robison in a release.
"We remained hopeful that public health conditions would improve, but unfortunately that is not the reality we see in front of us today. The ongoing challenges with non-essential interprovincial and international cross-border travel leave us no alternative but to cancel the 2021 WHL playoffs."
The WHL also plans to recognize individual award winners by division with league-wide honours to follow.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.