Mon May 23 11:30pm EDT
MISSISSAUGA — Without Brayden McNabb, the Kootenay Ice found the spirit was willing but their legs were jelly.
There always seems to be one team at each MasterCard Memorial Cup which falls into the role of the tournament's Hard Luck Club. Kootenay, for all it's accomplished this season, including having one of the most dominant playoff runs in Western Hockey League history, is in that role after having its captain suspended for what turned out to be Sunday's eventual 2-1 loss to the Mississauga-St. Michael's Majors. The loss leaves the Ice, who have yet to score an even-strength goal since touching down in Southern Ontario, at risk of being eliminated should they loss Tuesday to Saint John.
To their credit, the Ice didn't buckle defensively minus McNabb, their big horse on the blueline.
"I think we have the personnel to make up for not having him," said goalie Nathan Lieuwen, the WHL playoff MVP who was solid with 32 saves. "James Martin, Joey Leach, those guys stepped up. But I agree, there was a hole there tonight. It's hard to miss your captain."
Martin and Leach, shouldering extra minutes, did great work in the second period, nearly half of which (8:24) the Ice spent on the penalty kill. However, with McNabb already out, having top-end players, including Cody Eakin, occupied by trying to scuttle Mississauga's power play left Kootenay overdrawn when it came time to play 5-on-5 hockey. The bill had to come due sooner or later.
"You can usually get a momentum boost when you do kill those but that doesn't do much for your legs," Ice head coach Kris Knoblauch said. "For a guy like Joey Leach or James Martin, it takes a lot out of them. As a group, the six defencemen played really well tonight. Would we have liked Brayden McNabb in there? Sure."
'Squeezing the stick'
And what now, with McNabb due back for a win-or-go-home game against Saint John? The always upbeat Lieuwen, following the game, was already talking about how his team simply has to "win four in a row," as the Windsor Spitfires did to win the tournament in 2009
"Now we have to stay loose, the best way to go about it now is not be tight and start squeezing the stick too hard," Eakin said. "We've got to stay on top of it and stay loose and play our game."
"A lot of guys stepped up tonight to give us a shot," Eakin added. "That's what happens in hockey and in playoffs."
During their run to the franchise's third WHL title in 11 seasons, the Ice have seemed like a team which excels at creating self-doubt for opponents. They are the only team here which averaged less than four goals per game in the regular season. In the playoffs, there were times where they would score once, then come right back before the opponent could regroup. Instances such as the five-goal game centre Max Reinhart had in the playoffs, or a wild 7-5 Game 2 road win which forever turned the league final against Portland, come to mind.
"I believed our team could get it back," Lieuwen said when asked for his reaction after the Majors' Rob Flick zipped the game-winner by him with 8:09 to play. "With our team, once guys start scoring, they'll come in bunches."
For Kootenay, that has to happen on Tuesday.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).