It’s been quite the first year behind the Kootenay Ice bench for Kris Knoblauch.
Knoblauch led Kootenay into the WHL playoffs with a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference standings.
After needing six games to beat Moose Jaw in the first round, Kootenay caught fire, sweeping both the top-seeded Saskatoon Blades and third-ranked Medicine Hat Tigers to win the division crown before dispatching the Portland Winterhawks in five games for the club’s first league title since 2002.
What’s more, Kootenay has won 15 of its last 16 playoff games, heady stuff indeed for the 32-year-old Knoblauch.
“It has been a remarkable season and I’ve been very proud of what our team has accomplished,” he said.
“We have a lot to feel good about . . . but it would feel a lot better with one more trophy.”
And that trophy would be the Memorial Cup.
But despite the club’s playoff success, the Ice heads into the tournament in Mississauga, Ont., as an underdog given the three other participants all finished in the Canadian Hockey League’s top 10 while Kootenay didn’t.
The Saint John Sea Dogs, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion, captured the top ranking after posting a 58-7-3 record while the host Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors were third (53-13-2) and the Ontario Hockey League-champion Owen Sound Attack (46-17-5) was eighth.
Kootenay missed out despite posting a 46-21-5 record but Knoblauch is fine with the club’s underdog status.
“That’s a term we’ve been playing with all year, going into the playoffs as a fourth seed in the conference,” he said. “We’re a team that doesn’t have any superstars, we just go out and work hard.”
The tournament begins at the Hershey Centre with Saint John squaring off against Mississauga St. Mike’s on Friday night (5 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, RDS).
The Ice faces Owen Sound on Saturday night, (5 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, RDS).
Attack GM Dale DeGray says his team won’t be taking Kootenay lightly.
“Obviously we’re all there for a reason, we’re all deserving,” he said.
“The Ice knocked off Saskatoon, right? So let’s not kid ourselves.
“If there’s a team that’s going to take Kootenay lightly because it wasn’t one of the higher rated teams, then you’re not preparing yourself to win.”
The round-robin ends May 25 with Mississauga meeting Owen Sound in an OHL final rematch. Any tie-breakers will be played May 26, with the semifinal game going the following night.
The tournament concludes with the Memorial Cup final May 29.
Knoblauch said the Ice was hampered by injuries during the regular season and points to the club getting all six of its top defencemen back healthy in time for the second playoff round as the key to Kootenay’s post-season run.
“The first game against Saskatoon was when we got our starting six back in the lineup,” he said.
“Through the regular season our starting six maybe played together a total of five or six games.
“That, I believe, was a big part of our success in the playoffs.”
Kootenay beat a Saskatoon team led by Brayden Schenn, the Los Angeles Kings first-round pick.
After sweeping Medicine Hat, the Ice dispatched a Portland squad that included 2010 NHL first-round picks Ryan Johansen (fourth overall to Columbus) and Nino Niederreiter (No. 5 to the New York Islanders) in the league final.
Then again, balanced scoring and stellar goaltending haven’t hurt the Ice, either.
Matt Fraser (17 goals, 10 assists), Max Reinhart (15 goals, 12 assists), trade deadline pickup Cody Eakin (11 goals, 16 assists) and defenceman Brayden McNabb (three goals, 24 assists) all finished tied for second in WHL playoff scoring. And Nathan Lieuwen was the league’s top goalie in the post-season, appearing in all 19 of Kootenay’s contests, posting a 2.24 goals-against average and .923 save percentage with three shutouts.
“Kootenay might have the best goaltending coming in,” DeGray said. “If you have a good goalie and he’s hot, you can do very well.
“A hot goalie can take you a very, very long way.”
Knoblauch expected to spend much of Monday watching game DVDs of the other tournament participants. And while each team will present different challenges, Knoblauch said in the Memorial Cup, often special teams and goaltending are the keys to success.
“The difference between these teams is very small, we’re getting to the best in the country right now,” he said. “When teams are so evenly matched it comes down to the important things like discipline, goaltending and your special-teams.”
“If you’ve got those working on all cylinders you’re going to have an incredible amount of success,” he said. “It’s harder to get there (to Memorial Cup) and once you’re there maybe a bit more luck is drawn into the equation.”
Saint John finished the regular season as the CHL’s top-ranked squad, then backed it up by capturing the QMJHL in six games over Gatineau. The Sea Dogs will attempt to become the ninth league franchise to capture the Memorial Cup.
Jonathan Huberdeau was the QMJHL’s second-leading playoff scorer with a team-high 30 points (16 goals, 14 assists) in 19 post-season contests. Russian Stanislav Galiev was fifth overall with 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) while teammate Zack Phillips was sixth with 24 points, including nine goals.
Jacob DeSerres was the league’s best playoff goalie with a 2.00 GAA and .916 save percentage in 16 appearances with two shutouts.
Mississauga has known all season it would play in the Memorial Cup yet still finished with an OHL-best 53-13-2 record. But the Majors had to settle with being the tournament host after losing the league final in seven games to Owen Sound.
Devante Smith-Pelly had a team-high 21 points in the playoffs, including 15 goals. Maxim Kitsyn and Justin Shugg (both with 10 goals, nine assists) and Casey Cizikas (five goals, 14 assists) were next while J.P. Anderson has appeared in all 20 playoff games, posting a sparkling .211 GAA and solid .920 save percentage with four shutouts.
The Attack had the OHL’s second-best record this season at 46-17-5, earning Mark Reeds the league’s coach of the year title. Owen Sound clinched its Memorial Cup berth by capturing the Western Conference title but goes in as the league champion after winning four of the final five games against Mississauga.
“Both teams wanted to do that (go into tournament as OHL champion),” DeGray said. “But only one was going to be able to and I’m glad it’s us.
“At this point, all teams are in the same boat and if you worry so much about one team maybe you’ll have your guard down for somebody else. The big thing for us is to worry about our game, to make our game the best it can be and maybe everyone else will have to worry about us.”
Right-winger Robby Mignardi and Colorado Avalanche prospect Joey Hishon, a centre, have been Owen Sound’s playoff scoring leaders with 24 points each as Mignardi was the OHL post-season MVP with eight of his 15 goals having come on the power play. Left-winger Garrett Wilson had added 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists).
The Attack has depth in goal.
Scott Stajcer (13 appearances, 2.79 GAA, .909 save percentage) has seen the bulk of action with Michael Zador and Jordan Binnington having both played in seven games, posting GAAs of 2.13 and 3.21, respectively. And it was Binnington who started the deciding game of the OHL final.