In the heat of what is almost certain to be a frenzied race for playoff positions in February and March, no one will remember the WHL exhibition game that was played in the Sandman Centre on Friday night.
But you can bet that, at least for one night, the Kamloops Blazers enjoyed what was a convincing 6-3 victory over the Prince George Cougars. Well, at least the first half of it.
It was just last spring when the Blazers finished two points behind the Cougars in the Western Conference standings — one team got into the playoffs, the other didn’t.
Last night, the Blazers roared to a 6-1 lead, scoring four times before the game was 10 minutes old. They got their sixth goal at 7:33 of the second period.
Kamloops head coach Don Hay liked what he saw, especially in the early going.
“I thought we played a pretty solid game,” he said. “We had 42 shots and that’s really good and just 19 shots against. We had lots of opportunity.
“We couldn’t keep that intensity level that we started with. We had some lulls, but for the first game I was pretty happy.”
Kamloops, with five freshmen dressed to the Cougars’ 10, used their speed to dominate the first period, outshooting the visitors, 13-6. The home team’s line that had fifth-year centre Matt Needham between sophomores Jake Kryski and Deven Sideroff owned the opening 20 minutes. You can bet that some of the Cougars’ fresh faces had heard about Sideroff’s speed but hadn’t seen it in person until last night.
“We used our speed,” Hay said. “That was the real key part of the first period . . . using our speed and creating opportunities off the rush. We were quick on the attack and hard on the puck.”
Defenceman Patrik Maier, forward Collin Shirley, Sideroff, with a dazzling burst off the right wing and a terrific deke, and Needham scored for the home boys in the first period. Freshman forward Kolby Johnson, who showed some grit in this one, counted for the visitors.
Defenceman Cam Reagan and forward Luke Harrison extended the Kamloops lead in the second period, before defenceman Max Martin and forward Kody McDonald got the Cougars’ last two goals.
The third period was scoreless.
Kamloops goaltender Connor Ingram went the distance, stopping 16 shots. For the most part, he was calm, cool and collected; however, he did get beaten twice on shots that were high to the glove side.
The Cougars have four goaltenders on their roster; they scratched veterans Ty Edmonds, 19, and Mack Shields, 20, while starting Tavin Grant, 17, and bringing on Patrick Gora, 19, midway through the second period.
Grant was beaten five times on 21 shots; Gora gave up a goal on the first shot he saw moments after entering, but stopped the next 20.
After a lacklustre intrasquad game on Tuesday, Hay said he and his staff harped on shooting the puck a lot more.
“We wanted to put more shots on the net and create more scoring opportunities,” Hay said. :I thought we really came out focused on what we had to do.”
A look at the scoresheet might give on the impression that the Blazers’ power play struggled. It was 0-for-6 but, as Hay said, the chances were there.
“I thought our power play was pretty good,” he said, with a bit of a chuckle. “We didn’t score but I thought it was pretty good.”
In the end, though, it simply was the first exhibition game of the season for both teams. And, at times, it looked like it.
“It’s tough when you jump out to a lead to keep that intensity going,” Hay said. “But we got to use all the players, including the young players. . . . It was a good way to start.”
On the other side, Cougars head coach Mark Holick like what he saw of his younger players in the game’s second half, once they got their feet wet early and got a taste of the Blazers’ speed.
“I thought the young guys on our back end got better as the game went on,” Holick said. “It was the older guys who I thought struggled.”
As for his goaltending, Holick said the Cougars would like to open the season with two on their roster, but that could change. He indicated that Mack Shields, a 20-year-old picked up off waivers from the Calgary Hitmen, has been strong in camp and may force the issue. Shields and Ty Edmonds, last season’s starter, are scheduled to split playing time tonight in Kelowna against the Rockets.
JUST NOTES: Attendance was announced at 1,219. . . . Blazers D Ryan Rehill will hear from the WHL office after taking a charging major and game misconduct for a neutral zone hit on McDonald. The puck was nowhere near McDonald when Rehill unloaded on the unsuspecting McDonald. . . . The Cougars were 1-for-5 on the PP; they didn't score on Rehill’s major. . . . Kamloops D Devan Harrison, who is from Dysart, Sask., was dropped from the roster after the game. He was a second-round pick in the 2015 bantam draft. He played, and played well, last night. . . . Among the Blazers scratches were D Marc McNulty (foot), F Quinn Benjafield (appendectomy) and D Conner McDonald (undisclosed). Other veterans scratched were D Travis Verveda and F Matt Revel. . . . F Jansen Harkins of the Cougars will attend the Winnipeg Jets’ rookie camp and play in the Young Guns tournament in Penticton, Sept. 11-14. He was a second-round pick in the NHL’s 2015 draft. . . . Harkins was scratched last night, along with other Cougars mainstays D Sam Ruopp, F Chase Witala, F Jesse Gabrielle, F Jared Bethune, D Josh Anderson, D Joe Carvalho and F Brad Morrison. . . . The Blazers meet the Vancouver Giants in Ladner tonight.