The Kamloops Blazers clinched a playoff spot on Wednesday night as they beat the host Spokane Chiefs, 3-2, in Veterans Memorial Arena.
The Blazers (34-25-9), who missed the playoffs each of the previous two seasons, wrapped up a post-season spot with their fifth straight victory. They are 3-0-0 on a four-game road swing, having beaten the Kelowna Rockets, 3-2, on Saturday and the Tri-City Americans, 6-2, on Tuesday.
The Blazers will conclude the trip against the Rockets on Friday, then come home to meet the Vancouver Giants on Saturday. Just last weekend, the Blazers swept a home-and-home with the Rockets, winning the opener, 3-2, at home on Friday.
Last night’s victory didn’t do anything to clarify the Blazers’ first-round opponent, though. In fact, the picture is even muddier than it was before the game.
The Blazers continue to hold down the 10-team Western Conference’s first of two wild-card spots; they now are eight points ahead of the Chiefs, who have six games remaining.
But, at the same time, Kamloops has pulled into a tie for third-place with the Prince George Cougars (36-27-5) in the B.C. Division. While the Blazers were winning in Spokane, the Cougars were dropping a 3-2 shootout decision in Kelowna. The first tiebreaker is victories, and the Cougars have the edge over the Blazers, 36-34, with each team having four games to play. They will close out the regular season with a home-and-home series — in Kamloops on March 19, in Prince George on March 20.
Should the Blazers end up in third place, they would meet the second-place B.C. Division team in the opening round. At the moment, Kelowna is second, three points behind the Victoria Royals.
Finishing in the first wild-card spot would set up a first-round meeting with the U.S. Division pennant winner. The Seattle Thunderbirds are on top now, two points up on the Everett Silvertips.
Of course, with the Blazers certain of appearing in the playoffs, some work will have to be done on their first-round schedule, what with the IIHF Women’s World Championship in Kamloops, from March 28 through April 4. The WHL playoffs likely will open on March 25. The Sandman Centre is available to the Blazers only on March 30 and April 2 while the women’s tournament is being played.
Last night, the Blazers got two first-period power-play goals and never trailed. Quinn Benjafield scored his 10th goal at 3:47 and Collin Shirley got No. 35 at 16:35.
Jaret Anderson-Dolan pulled the Chiefs to within one at 5:36 of the second period, but Spencer Bast got that one back for the Blazers when he scored his fourth goal just 52 seconds later.
Keanu Yamamoto’s 20th goal, at 7:45 of the second, again got the Chiefs to within a goal but that was as close as they would get.
Garrett Pilon had a strong game for the Blazers, with two assists.
Goaltender Connor Ingram, in his ninth straight start, turned aside 24 shots to run his record to 31-15-9. He is 11-2-1 in his last 14 starts. Only Carter Hart of the Everett Silvertips, with 35, has more victories this season than Ingram.
Spokane goaltender Tyson Verhelst finished up with 34 saves.
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 4,383. . . . The Blazers were 2-for-3 on the power play; the Chiefs were 0-for-3. . . . The Blazers scratched G Cole Kehler, D Conner McDonald, F Erik Miller and F Matt Campese. . . . The Chiefs had F Kailer Yamamoto back after he had been out since Feb. 3. They continue to play without D Jason Fram and F Wyatt Johnson, two of their key guys. D Evan Fiala, who was injured during a 5-0 loss in Kamloops on March 2 also remains out. . . . Blazers F Jermaine Loewen had one assist in his 100th regular-season game.
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