Missing a number of their most prolific scorers, the one thing the Brandon Wheat Kings could not afford to do on Saturday night was fall behind the Kootenay Ice.
So when the Ice took a two-goal lead out of the first period of the Western Hockey League game, the Wheat Kings' fate was effectively sealed as Kootenay skated to a 5-2 victory, sweeping a two-game set at Westman Place and sending Brandon to its fifth consecutive loss.
After losing 3-2 in a shootout to the Ice on Friday, the Wheat Kings saw their sick bay brigade grow by three, with Jayce Hawryluk, Richard Nejezchleb and Rene Hunter added to the injury list. That left Brandon dressing two skaters under the maximum, missing four of its six highest-scoring forwards and a top-four defenceman as the team played its fifth game in seven nights.
"We were really trying to get a character win," said rookie left-winger Tyler Coulter, who assisted on both Brandon goals. "We stepped up in the first after we went down a little bit and I thought we held our ground for the rest of the game. We just couldn't get a goal."
There were plenty of goals to be had in the first period as the teams combined to score six times, but four of them went to the Ice. Brandon captain Ryan Pulock struck first, but Kootenay responded with three straight goals before Jens Meilleur scored for the Wheat Kings (28-23-6-2).
Of the Ice's first-period markers, Jaedon Descheneau notched the game-winner on a power play, while Austin Vetterl's insurance marker was a short-handed tally. Luke Philp and Sam Reinhart also scored in the first frame as the Ice (33-22-2-2) strengthened their hold on fifth in the Eastern Conference. Landon Peel of Virden finished the game with two assists and a plus/minus of +1, while fellow blue-liner Landon Cross, a Brandonite, had one assist and was +2 for Kootenay.
"It's really nice to come here and spend some time with family, but the two wins is a lot bigger, that's for sure," Peel said.
The Wheat Kings pulled starting goalie Curtis Honey after 17 saves in his busy first period, replacing him with Jordan Papirny, who stopped all 22 shots he faced the rest of the way, with the game's only other goal being a Tim Bozon empty-netter.
"I thought our guys played hard; I give our team full marks for that," Wheat Kings head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "I thought we were ready for the challenge, we were gritty and competitive, so that part was good. I thought our goaltending wasn't as good as it needed to be in the first period. Our specialty teams weren't as good as they needed to be in the first period. You can cut the game whichever the way you want; at the end of the night we were minus-two on our specialty teams in a game we lost by two goals."
The loss left the Wheat Kings seventh in the Eastern Conference, but only two points behind the Regina Pats and Swift Current Broncos, who share first in the East Division, with Brandon to play in Regina on Monday afternoon (1:30, CKLQ). While the Wheat Kings don't know which, if any, of their injured players will play in that key game, Pulock said he and his teammates need to be prepared to compete no matter who is in uniform.
"When you don't have those top-end, skilled guys in the lineup, you've got to be tougher and you've got to win 3-2, 2-1 hockey games, and that's going to be our mindset," he said. "I don't know how long guys are going to be out, maybe not long at all, but we've got to focus on these next games, no matter what."
ONE-TIMERS: Along with Hawryluk (lower-body injury), Nejezchleb (lower body) and Hunter (upper body), the Wheat Kings were without C John Quenneville (upper body) and LW/RW Rihards Bukarts (upper body) … The Ice have some injury problems of their own, playing one skater short of the limit on Saturday, although none of their top 10 scorers going into the game were missing … Descheneau had three assists to go with his goal, while Reinhart had an assist for a two-point performance, stretching his point-scoring streak to 17 games (15 goals, 23 assists) … Kootenay G Mackenzie Skapski made 28 saves … The Wheat Kings finished the game 0-for-2 on the power play, while the Ice were 1-for-2 … Attendance was 3,626.