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Blazers and Rockets rarin' to go

First-round fun starts Friday in Kelowna
March 23, 2016 9:16 P.M.

A lot has been said and written about the fact that the Kamloops Blazers are going to play a hockey game in Memorial Arena next week.
At the same time, the Blazers can’t lose track of their having to play two games before Game 3 of their first-round WHL playoff series gets here.
The Blazers, who finished third in the B.C. Division, and the second-place Kelowna Rockets are scheduled to open a best-of-seven series at Prospera Place in the Little Apple on Friday night. Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday night.
The series then shifts to Kamloops, with Game 3 to be played in Memorial Arena, which opened for business in 1948. With the IIHF World Women’s Championship opening in the Blazers’ home arena, the Sandman Centre, on Monday, Kamloops was forced to find a different venue for its first home playoff date since the spring of 2013.
The Blazers last played in Memorial Arena on May 5, 1992. Zac Boyer scored three goals and added two assists, while Scott Niedermayer scored once and drew three assists, in an 8-0 victory over the Saskatoon Blades in front of 2,951 fans. Goaltender Corey Hirsch stopped 22 shots for the shutout. It was Game 7 of the WHL’s best-of-seven championship series.
The Blazers went on to win the Memorial Cup, their first of three in a magnificent four-year run.
Lorne Molleken, who spent the first 70 games of this WHL season as the head coach of the Vancouver Giants, was the Blades’ head coach in 1991-92. He remembers playing four games in Memorial Arena against the Tom Renney-coached Blazers. Don Hay, the Blazers’ head coach these days, and Terry Bangen, one of Hay’s assistants, were on Renney’s staff.
“I don’t think the Blazers carried the puck into our zone once in four games,” Molleken said. “It was get it over the centre line, dump it in and then get on our defence.”
According to the City, the Memorial Arena ice surface is 80 feet wide and 190 feet long, while it is 85x200 at the Sandman Centre. Most of the difference in length is in the neutral zone.
Today’s Blazers aren’t strangers to Memorial Arena, as they have practised there on occasion. They also spent the first three days of this week there, before moving back to the Sandman Centre where they will skate today (Thursday) before leaving for Kelowna.
Until recently, the Blazers hadn’t had a whole lot of regular-season success against the Rockets.
The Blazers won each of the last three meetings this season, two of them in Kelowna, to finish 3-4-1 against the Rockets. Each team won once in OT, so the Rockets were 5-2-1.
In 2014-15, the Rockets won the season series, 9-1-0, and it was 8-0-0 in 2013-14.
The last time it was a true rivalry was in 2012-13 when the Blazers won the series, 6-4-0, and then swept the Rockets from a second-round playoff series. The Blazers won the first two games at home, both being decided in OT, then went into Kelowna and won, 5-1 and 4-2.
This will be the sixth postseason meeting between these franchises and, if history is any indication, the series may not last long — four of the first five ended in sweeps. The Blazers swept the Rockets in 1992 (they were the Tacoma Rockets then), took out Kelowna in six games in 1999, and pulled off a sweep in 2013. Kelowna swept Kamloops in 2002 and 2009.
Some people are casting the Blazers as favourites for a few reasons.
1. The Blazers are 22-10-5 since Jan. 1, while the Rockets are 21-11-2;
2. Kamloops won each of the last three games between these teams; and
3. The Rockets are missing starting goaltender Jackson Whistle (hip) and forward Nick Merkley (knee), their leading scorer. Both have undergone surgery and won’t play again this season.
But let’s not forget that the Rockets are the defending champions. The last time a WHL team won back-to-back championships? The Blazers did it in 1994 and 1995.
If the Rockets are to repeat, then, they will have to get past the Blazers.
The fun starts on Friday.
JUST NOTES: The Blazers had two players — G Connor Ingram and F Collin Shirley — named to the Western Conference’s second all-star team on Wednesday. G Carter Hart of the Everett Silvertips is the first-team goaltender. . . . Shirley is on the second team along with F Tyler Soy of the Victoria Royals and F Chase Witala of the Prince George Cougars. . . . Kelowna F Tyson Baillie was named to the West’s first team. . . . D Joe Hicketts of the Royals, who is from Kamloops, is the Western Conference’s nominee as the WHL’s player of the year and its top defenceman. F Dryden Hunt of the Moose Jaw Warriors, who led the WHL with 58 goals, is the East’s POY nominee, while Ivan Provorov of the Brandon Wheat Kings is its nominee as top defenceman. . . . Hicketts and Provorov were the only unanimous choices as all-stars. . . .
The WHL playoffs actually get started tonight with the Edmonton Oil Kings in Brandon to play the Wheat Kings. This series features the Eastern Conference-champion Wheaties against the team that finished in the conference’s second wild-card spot after beating the host Medicine Hat Tigers, 6-4, in a tiebreaker game on Tuesday night.
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If you haven’t already, visit TheCoachesSite.com for WHL news, game roundups and a whole lot more.

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