Kodiaks claw back into contention
Camrose Kodiaks defenceman Zach Vinnell celebrates an overtime goal by Kyler Kupka on Saturday against the Drumheller Dragons in Alberta Junior Hockey League action. The Kodiaks won 3-2. Sean Mascaluk/Pro Sports Photography
There are a thousand clichés about a team needing their best players to be their best players. That is one right there.
But it all means nothing if they do not meet their expectations. It is usually then that the struggles and falls by the wayside.
The Camrose Kodiaks have not had to wonder about homegrown star Kyler Kupka for two months now as he has been a major reason why the club finds itself back in contention in the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s South Division.
This past weekend he was at his best, dominating in a 4-3 shootout win in Olds on Friday night and was clutch in scoring the overtime winner in a 3-2 win over the Drumheller Dragons on Saturday. The Kodiaks fell 4-2 in Olds on Tuesday but is still in the fight for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, something that would have been a fantasy for the team a few months ago.
“It makes it fun and hockey is all about having fun, when you’re having fun you play at your best and that’s what I’m doing now,” said Kupka.
When the Kodiaks were hit with injuries in November, including losing team captain Ryan Hartman to a concussion for three months, Brock Bremer and Jacob Kendall continued to drive the top line. Since the beginning of December, no player has shown more improvement than Kupka.
He has gone from back in the pack in team scoring to battling for the lead with Bremer, an edge currently held by the American rookie. What that has meant to the Kodiaks is not just scoring depth but someone who demanded the eye of the opposition.
He was not playing poorly early in the season, but he just was not at the level he showed last season when he was a finalist for AJHL rookie of the year. He was working hard, he was getting chances, but the puck was just not finding the back of the net with any regularity.
In early December, he and Kendall were invited to the Canada West tryouts for the junior A world championships. They did not make the team, but Kupka has been unstoppable since. The 18-year-old forward has 26 points in 22 games since then.
He will have one more year with the Kodiaks before heading to Alaska-Fairbanks on a scholarship.
“He’s only going to get better,” said head coach and general manager Boris Rybalka. “He doesn’t panic, and that’s what impresses me. He just relaxes, he gets the puck and says I’m going to pick that corner and that’s what he does.”
Kupka is not just producing, he is scoring timely goals, including converting a two0on-one cross-crease pass from Zach Vinnell 42 seconds into overtime on Saturday to beat Drumheller.
When you are a team that has played in as many one-goal games as the Kodiaks – 35 of their 50 contests – timing is everything. They have been on the wrong side of that timing for much of the season with 11 overtime or shootout losses, but they have now won three games in a row when regulation ended in a tie, including both of their wins on the weekend.
“The big thing is trust, we trust in the players and they trust in the staff,” said Rybalka. “They’ve come a long way. They trust us in practice, they pay attention to detail and it’s starting to come together.”
With Tuesday’s setback, coupled with a 9-1 win by the Dragons over the Calgary Canucks, the Kodiaks are now seven points back of Drumheller for third place in the South. They have come a long way from November and December when they spent much of the two months digging their way out of the basement as they sit in a three-way tie at 49 points with the two Calgary teams.
They still have their work cut for them with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons in Camrose on Friday at 7 p.m. in the Max Mclean Arena and then the Canmore Eagles on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Encana Arena.
Kupka says they still have plenty in the tank for the stretch run.
“We’re still only 17- to 20- year-old kids, by playoff time we’ll be excited, we’ll be ready to go,” he said.