The second Stu MacGregor era began with a bang rather than a whimper on Tuesday night at the Sandman Centre.
The Kamloops Blazers, who went into the night having lost their first six games this WHL season, lit up the Red Deer Rebels for three first-period goals en route to a 3-1 victory.
Prior to last night, the Blazers hadn’t enjoyed a two-goal lead at any point this season. In fact, they had held only three leads — they were out in front of the visiting Tri-City Americans 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 on Oct. 7 before falling, 4-3.
But all of that went out the window against Red Deer, allowing MacGregor, who was named the club’s vice-president and general manager earlier in the day, to quite enjoy this one from his new perch in the press box area.
MacGregor, an assistant general manager and general manager with the Blazers in a bygone era, replaced Craig Bonner earlier in the day.
The Blazers announced Tuesday afternoon that Bonner had resigned after more than seven years as the GM. Later in the day, the NHL’s Dallas Stars announced that he had been added to their professional scouting staff. Dallas owner Tom Gaglardi is the Blazers’ majority owner.
The Blazers now are 1-6-0; the attendance last night was announced as 3,015, the second-smallest regular-season crowd in the history of the facility, which opened for the 1992-93 season. So you know how much is on MacGregor’s plate, on and off the ice.
But, if anything, last night’s effort showed that the Blazers aren’t as poor as their record might seem to indicate.
“It feels great,” said Blazers goaltender Connor Ingram, the game’s No. 1 star with 31 saves. “No one can deny that’s a good hockey team over there. When you take down a giant like that it shows what you can do.”
If anything, this was a game decided on special teams. The Blazers played the Rebels even — 1-1 — at even strength, and outscored the visitors 2-0 on the power play.
“The penalty kill was pretty good,” offered Kamloops head coach Don Hay. “Guys were really sacrificing. Ryan Rehill had an outstanding block late in the game. Connor was really solid. We got two power-play goals. Specialty teams were really important.”
It was apparent that the Blazers, especially Ingram, had watched the Rebel’s power play via video. The visitors used a 1-3-1 alignment, with Ivan Nikolishin on the right side attempting to set up Michael Spacek for one-timers from the left face-off dot. On at least three occasions, Ingram got across in time to stop Spacek shots from that area.
By game’s end, the Rebels, the host team for the 2016 Memorial Cup, were 0-for-5 with the man advantage, while the Blazers went 2-for-5.
“They’ve got some high end guys out there who can shoot the puck. We really shut them down,” Ingram said. He also said that he remember playing against Nikolishin last season, when he was with the Everett Silvertips.
“He’s a skilled player but he doesn’t shot the puck much from that side,” Ingram said, also pointing out that defenceman Haydn Fleury “didn’t let it go from the top.”
Forward Collin Shirley, who had another strong effort, gave the Blazers a 1-0 lead at 7:15 of the opening period, skating hard around a sprawling Fleury and beating goaltender Rylan Toth with a quick snapshot.
But the Blazers gave that one back 54 seconds later as Spacek, a highly touted Czech freshman, took a cross-ice pass from Nikolishin, a Russian, and beat Ingram with a 25-foot one-timer.
To this point in the season, the Blazers almost had made a habit of surrendering a goal shortly after having scored themselves. When Spacek scored, one sensed the crowd was thinking en masse, “Ahh, here we go again!” However, the Rebels walked into some penalty problems, with Presten Kopeck going off for kneeing at 10:43 and Kayle Doetzel taking a double minor for high-sticking at 12:49.
Kopeck was back on the ice when Blazers defenceman Dawson Davidson snuck in from the left point, took a backdoor pass from Shirley and tucked it into the open net at 12:49.
A second PP goal followed, at 14:28, with forward Nick Chyzowski banging a second rebound into the net. It was Chyzowski’s third goal this season; he scored six in 66 game last season.
In its first six games, the Blazers had managed but two power-play goals in 24 opportunities. The two PP goals last night came in a span of 1:23.
Chyzowski’s goal sent Toth to the Red Deer bench — he allowed three goals on five shots — with Trevor Martin coming on in relief.
Martin stopped all 16 shots he faced as he and Ingram shut the doors over the last two periods.
Brent Sutter, Red Deer’s general manager and head coach, also shut the door after the game, which ended at 9:12 p.m. Sutter was still in the Rebels’ dressing room at 9:40. Only one voice could be heard.
Ingram’s play was especially important because he had watched from the bench on Saturday as backup Dylan Ferguson made his first WHL start a solid one in a 3-1 loss to the visiting Victoria Royals.
“You want to be in the net. You want to be the No. 1 guy,” Ingram said. “It felt good to be back in there.”
He didn’t feel that he had played poorly in his last couple of starts, but, he said, “During those games I felt I was making the saves I needed to be, but I couldn’t get the one or two that I shouldn’t have. I got a few of those tonight and I got a post early in the second.”
As far as Hay was concerned, Ingram “was the best player on the ice.”
“Sometimes,” Hay added, “that’s what you need to get out of a slump . . . a great effort from your goaltender. When your goalie can be first star, he’s making a difference in the game.”
After Ferguson’s performance on Saturday, Hay said he would see what happened in practice on Monday before deciding who started against Red Deer.
“I thought Ingram was the better goalie (Monday),” Hay said. “We took Sunday off and I thought he responded with a good practice.”
Hay said he took into account “how he handled not playing and how he bounced back and had a good effort.”
The decision paid off, too, as Ingram’s stellar play sparked his mates to their first victory.
“We beat a good hockey club tonight and that’s a good step in the process of becoming a competitive team,” Hay said. “It’s a win and that’s the most important thing for us right now . . . to get rewarded for our hard work. Now we can start building on that.”
JUST NOTES: The Blazers scratched F Luke Harrison, D Cam Reagan, F Matt Campese, D Conner McDonald (undisclosed injury) and F Deven Sideroff (ill). . . . Harrison was the 20-year-old scratch as they went with D Ryan Rehill, D Marc McNulty and F Matt Needham. . . . The 20-year-old deadline arrives Thursday morning at 10 by which time the Blazers will have to drop one of the four. . . . “We had a plan before the game,” Hay said, adding that he and MacGregor would be sitting down to discuss things again. . . . Kamloops will board its bus Thursday and head south for games against the Seattle Thunderbirds on Friday and the Spokane Chiefs on Saturday. . . . The Blazers’ next home game is Oct. 21 when the Victoria Royals come calling. . . . The Rebels are without highly touted sophomore D Josh Mahura (knee), who won’t play again for up to six months. He was a second-round pick in the 2013 bantam draft.
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