At the halfway mark of the 2021 WHL season, the Winnipeg ICE finds themselves in the same position they occupied at the quarter mark – trailing the top spot, but still in control of their fate. Their 8-4-0-0 record ranks third in the East Division, but only first place gets to bring home the Subway Cup.
Record: 8-4-0-0 (16 points, third in division)
Goal Differential: +15 (tied for second in division)
Scoring Leader: Peyton Krebs, 21 points (tied for second in WHL)
Goals Leader: Jakin Smallwood, nine goals (tied for fourth in WHL)
Assists Leader: Peyton Krebs, 15 assists (tied for second in WHL)
GAA Leader: Gage Alexander, 2.01 GAA (tied for eighth in WHL)
Save Percentage Leader: Gage Alexander, .926 SP (ninth in WHL)
Power Play: 31.6 percent (third in WHL)
Penalty Kill: 84.8 percent (seventh in WHL)
The way the teams are playing on the ice, it almost seems like a normal year of intense WHL hockey. It’s fast-paced, emotional, energetic hockey where everyone is competing like it’s already the playoffs. In a way, it is – with playoffs looking less likely every day, the divisional crowns are likely the only championships up for grabs this year. The Winnipeg ICE looks like one of the favourites for the East Division championship, but the sprint to the finish is only halfway done.
Depth, controlling puck possession, and dominating special teams have been key to the ICE’s success so far. Head coach James Patrick has his team following the blueprint, getting his team to focus on their own system and standards, not what the other guys are doing. It’s a mindset Winnipeg ICE play-by-play voice Mitch Peacock believes is a major factor in the team’s success.
“You can’t focus so much on what the other team is doing, so much as just working with what you have,” Peacock said.
With limited practice time, video has become more essential than ever. The ICE’s coaches have been able to analyze and explain the video to their players in a way that’s easy to understand and implement into game situations. ICE players are all in this year, and it shows in their play.
“Next Man Up”
The injury bug has bit the ICE once more, taking Nolan Orzeck down. That’s the top “D” pairing gone as Carson Lambos left the bubble earlier in the season. It’s not all bad news, though. Michael Milne is back, which is huge for both the ICE forward core and himself.
Before Milne’s return, the ICE was running 11 forwards and seven “D” for a few games. Milne’s return combined with Orzeck’s injury changed the ICE’s philosophy, as they’re now running 13 forwards and five “D.”
For the forwards, Milne allows the ICE to run four skilled, versatile lines that create matchup issues for opponents. He applies heavy pressure on defensemen, plays important special teams’ minutes, and can move to centre if needed. In a year with no real trade deadline, Milne’s the best “acquisition” the ICE could’ve hoped for.
“He’s a persistent type of a guy, like a dog on a bone,” said Peacock.
On the back end, the first move the team made was to put rookie forward Evan Waldie onto the third pairing. So far, he hasn’t looked outmatched – a good sign going forward. Having a player who can fill multiple roles in case of injury is vital. The 18-year-old Waldie has a chance to prove he can be that player for the ICE.
The second move must have been getting Ben Zloty a harness because he’s become an absolute workhorse. He’s hitting 30 minutes a night for fun nowadays, filling top PP and PK duties while matching up against the best of the East. With help from partner Karter Prosofsky, he’s been more than equal to the task.
“They’re doing a good job of making the best of a challenging situation,” Peacock said.
“I think you can either look at it as an obstacle or as an opportunity to grow your game and I think these guys are doing that.”
Speaking of Milne and Zloty, they along with Owen Pederson are looking to use this short season to impress NHL scouts ahead of the 2021 NHL Draft.
For Milne, it’s his first tour of duty. Missing the first ten games hurts, but if he keeps playing like he has since his return, he’ll have a pretty strong case to be picked.
Both Zloty and Pederson are returning after being passed over in the draft back in October 2020. Peacock noted both players took the setback as feedback rather than as an insult, something he believes will lead them to success. Both have worked hard to address the issues that made teams pass them over – they’ve looked much better than last year so far.
Carson Lambos is going to be drafted in the first round this year – some of his teammates will likely follow him later in the draft.
Kreb’s Last Ride
This is Peyton Kreb’s last season in the WHL and he’s looking to go out on top – literally. He’s only three points back of Edmonton Oil King Dylan Guenther right now for the league lead.
Peacock highlighted it as the most important secondary storyline for Winnipeg in the bubble. Krebs winning the scoring race would go a long way to helping the ICE win the Subway Cup.
The Second Half
A quick look at the WHL standings will tell you exactly who stands in the way of a Winnipeg championship.
The Brandon Wheat Kings and Saskatoon Blades sit tied atop the standings after Brandon beat Saskatoon Sunday night. They’re both three points up on Winnipeg right now, and a big part of that is their play against the ICE. Winnipeg is 1-3 against these two teams so far. For Winnipeg to win the Subway Cup, they’ll likely have to take at least three of the remaining four games against these teams.
“The games against Saskatoon and Brandon are going to be the ones that make the difference [this year],” said Peacock.
The ICE can’t afford to take an off night. They had one against last place Swift Current, and that 7-3 loss stands as the costliest so far this season. With only 12 games left, leaving points on the table could come back to haunt them.
“It seems really simple – just take care of the teams in front of you – but if don’t beat the teams below you, you won’t have a shot,” said Peacock.
“It’s going to take some time to sort it out and every game is going to matter, and I’m not just saying that so people listen in on the radio,” said Peacock.
There’s no doubt the Winnipeg ICE is one of the top contenders in the East Division. Whether on the radio or CHL TV, the race for the Subway Cup is not one to miss.