The Kamloops Blazers are hoping that Collin Shirley is through with gripping his stick too tightly.
Shirley struck for a shorthanded goal on Monday to help the Blazers snap a four-game losing streak with a 3-2 victory over the visiting Calgary Hitmen.
That was Shirley’s team-leading 30th goal of the season, but just his first in six games and his fourth in 16. In fact, he had
but eight points in his previous 15 games, going back to Jan. 9.
“I think I was gripping the stick a little too tight,” Shirley, 19, said. “Whenever you’re not scoring, it’s in the back of your mind . . . you get worried and try to do too much.”
Going into Monday’s game, he said his goals were “to be more physical, shoot the puck when I had my chances and get my confidence back.”
Shirley also found himself on what could be construed as the Blazers’ third line for the first time this season as the coaching staff changed things up in an attempt to get him and centre Jiri Smejkal untracked by playing them together with right-winger Quinn Benjafield.
Smejkal, a 19-year-old Czech sophomore, has three assists in 13 games since being acquired from the Moose Jaw Warriors for Slovakian defenceman Patrik Maier last month. Smejkal had 18 points, including four goals, in 28 games with the Warriors. Last season, he had 32 points, 12 of them goals, in 72 games.
It remains to be seen if head coach Don Hay will leave that threesome together tonight as the Blazers open a home-and-home series with the Vancouver Giants.
They will play tonight in Vancouver and Saturday, 7 p.m., at the Sandman Centre in what is an important series for both teams.
The Blazers (24-22-8) are tied with the Portland Winterhawks for the 10-team Western Conference’s last two playoff spots.They are three points ahead of the Tri-City Americans and eight up on the Giants (21-28-6).
Kamloops is 2-7-1 in its past 10 outings; the Giants are 4-5-1.
The Blazers are expected to have defenceman Ryan Rehill, 20, back after a seven-game absence. He is a key performer because he takes a regular shift, kills penalties and plays a point on the first power-play unit.
At the same time, the Blazers will be without freshman defenceman Nolan Kneen (knee), who was injured on Monday.
The Giants, who showed seven players as being injured on the WHL’s weekly roster report that came out Tuesday, may have forwards Thomas Foster and Dawson Holt back tonight. But forward Tyler Benson remains out — he’s now week-to-week — while defencemen Matt Barberis and Ryely McKinstry and forwards Brendan Semchuk, who is from Kamloops, and Johnny Wesley are out indefinitely and likely won’t play again this season.
After these two games, the Blazers and Giants will have three games remaining in the season series. To date, the Giants are 2-0-1, while the Blazers are 1-2-0.