Fri May 27 12:20am EDT
MISSISSAUGA — After the Kootenay Ice advanced to Friday's MasterCard Memorial Cup semifinal, their head coach Kris Knoblauch was asked if his team is close to its peak.
The Ice have popped in 12 goals in their past two games, including seven on special teams, while earning a rematch with the host Mississauga-St. Michael's Majors. They'll be the less rested team Friday, with the home crowd against them, but they seem to be surging.
"We're getting there," Knoblauch said. "I still think we've got room for improvement, especially our 5-on-5 play [15-11 advantage in scoring chances at 5-on-5 on Thursday]. Special teams has been doing very well, but there's still a lot of improvement we can make 5-on-5."
Five days ago, the Ice weren't all there in a 3-1 loss to Mississauga. They figure to have at least a fighting chance, notwithstanding the tight turnaround.
"That's fun, that's hockey," centre Cody Eakin said of playing back-to-back. "Two games in two nights isn't a lot for us. We've played a lot of hockey over the season, a lot of 3-in-3s, a lot of 4-in-5s, so this is no big deal."
What edge do the Ice believe they have on the Majors? Their power play is cracking, having going 5-for-13 in their past two victories. By comparison, Mississauga is cold at 3-for-22 in that tournament. That could factor into a game where there will be less space to manoeuvre than a Toronto subway car at Monday rush hour.
"Tomorrow's going to be a very tight game and the difference will probably be special teams," Knoblauch said. "We've had that going and hopefully it will continue."
Is it fair to say the Attack were down to running on fumes? Owen Sound had more playoff games (22) than any team in the field. Take away star scorers Joey Hishon and Garrett Wilson with injuries and this was a gassed group.
"You look at Kootenay and Saint John, they walked through their side," Attack coach Mark Reeds said. "I think they were both 16-3. You play grueling seven-game series, lose Joey Hishon right off the get-go and with Garrett going out, those are two guys who log a lot of ice time and they're premier players in this league. You talk about pumping the tires and trying to stay on top it and not get deflated, but the first goal and them coming right back [13 seconds later], Cody Eakin making a great play, that sets you back.
"Those are the two players you've looked to all year to have a response," Reeds added. "I'm very proud of my team, they had a great year, winning the OHL championship."
Reeds pulled another goalie gambit by going with 19-year-old Scott Stajcer over Jordan Binnington, who started all three round-robin games. That was in keeping with how he's often played one goalie until the team loses, but it didn't work.
"The way my team responds, if you look at the last game that we played, we didn't come out the way that we needed to, asking Jordan Binnington to come up with numerous saves," said Reeds, who famously used three starting goalies in the OHL final. "I was looking for a response from my team. I guess after the fact you can look at it any way you want. I thought the first two goals Stajcer didn't have much of a chance. The third goal was obviously one he'd want back. The important thing is I wanted my team to be more focused."
Did Owen Sound's injuries and goalie change throw Kootenay for a loop? As Knoblauch told it, it might have contributed to the Ice being a bit slack in the first period, which was evenly played but saw the Attack go up 2-0 on goals by Cameron Brace and rookie Jarrod Maidens. After that, Kootenay pumped in the next half-dozen goals.
"It was just playing with a little more emotion," Knoblauch said. "We thought it was going to be easy. They had some good players out of the lineup and yes, they made the goaltending change. I think our players were reading too much into that. It's a long year and I think players look for any chance that it's going to be easy. Owen Sound wasn't going to go anywhere.
"We realized we had to work a lot harder after that first period."