The Kamloops Blazers have discovered the joy of winning.
A season that didn’t include a whole lot of fun in the early going has shown recent signs of turning around.
“Winning is a good feeling,” Blazers captain Matt Needham, who is in his fifth season here, said after a 7-3 victory over the visiting Lethbridge Hurricanes on Friday night. “If we can keep it rolling, we’ll be happy all the time.”
That was the Blazers’ fifth victory in their past seven games, which definitely is a step up from that 0-6-0 start. While they don’t (yet?) hold down a playoff spot, they are 5-8-0 and in the hunt.
The chase continues tonight at the Sandman Centre with the Spokane Chiefs providing the opposition. It is the Blazers’ fifth straight home game — they went 3-1-0 in the first four. It also is their second meeting with the Chiefs, with the Blazers having won 5-1 in Spokane on Oct. 17.
The Blazers’ last two games — a 5-1 victory over the Prince George Cougars and Friday’s triumph over Lethbridge — were especially impressive because of the way the home boys started.
Against Prince George, the Blazers took control with three first-period goals. On Friday, Kamloops scored four times in the first period and added two more goals in the first two minutes of the second period as they whipped the Hurricanes, who had shown up on an eight-game winning streak.
“The last two seasons, our starts have been subpar,” veteran defenceman Ryan Rehill said. “There has definitely been an emphasis in our group to have good starts, have a strong first five and first 10 minutes. We want to focus on getting a
few shots in that time and continue to build through the period.”
Asked about the biggest difference in his club between now and the early going, Kamloops head coach Don Hay was succinct: “We’re more competitive.”
So . . . where was that competitiveness earlier?
“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” Hay said, shaking his head at the same time. “Confidence is a funny thing. As you go along, confidence builds and builds. It kind of snowballs. Right now it starts with your goaltender. Your goaltender gains confidence, your defence gains confidence and then your forwards get it.”
Right now, Connor Ingram of the Blazers is playing as well as any WHL goaltender. Overall, he is 5-5-0, 3.35, .891, but in his last four starts he is 4-0-0, 1.75, .935.
Meanwhile, it’s much the same story for the Chiefs, who are on their second six-game road trip already this season. The Chiefs opened the season at home, then went on a six-game trek before coming home for five. Tonight’s game is No. 5 on a trip that will end with a Saturday game against the Tri-City Americans in Kennewick, Wash.
The Chiefs (7-7-2) are 3-1-0 on the trip, having won their last three, including a 3-1 victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings on Sunday.
Goaltender Tyson Verhelst, 18, from Brandon, is 7-5-1, 2.95, .908. As strong as those numbers are, in the last three games, he has gone 3-0-0, 1.67, .951. He stopped 35 of 36 shots in the victory over Edmonton, which was the Chiefs’ fourth game in five nights.
“I think we dodged a bullet. We didn’t play the way we’re capable of,” Spokane head coach Don Nachbaur told Derek Van Diest of the Edmonton Sun. “If you look at the schedule that we’ve been though this week, it’s been really demanding. We weren’t very good, our goalie was probably our best player, but we’ll take the two points and sneak out of town.”
The game will feature the coaches who are Nos. 2 and 3 on the WHL’s all-time list of winningest coaches.
Hay has 642 victories, while Nachbaur is at 639. The top spot belongs to former Portland Winterhawks head coach Ken Hodge, who retired with 742 victories.
Hodge’s record long has been though unassailable, but that may no longer be the case. Hay, a 61-year-old native of Kamloops, and Nachbaur, 56, who was born in Kitimat, both are within shouting distance now.
Lorne Molleken, 59, in his first season as the Vancouver Giants’ head coach, has 607 victories.
JUST NOTES: Game time tonight will be 7 o’clock. . . . After tonight, the Blazers are scheduled to play in Vancouver on Friday and here against Prince George on Saturday. . . . F Adam Helewka, 20, has two goals and two assists in four games since returning from a pro tryout with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. Last season, Helewka led the Chiefs in goals (44) and points (87). . . . Helewka’s presence gives the Chiefs four 20-year-olds, the others being D Jason Fram, F Luke Harrison and F Riley Whittingham. Harrison started the season with the Blazers but lost out in the 20-year-old game. After going pointless in four games with Kamloops, he has one goal in six games with the Chiefs. . . . F Kailer Yamamoto, a 17-year-old sophomore who is from Spokane, leads the Chiefs in assists (15) and points (20). . . . Spokane F Hudson Elynuik and D Jordan Henderson are out with undisclosed injuries, while F Jaret Anderson-Dolan and F Hayden Ostir are at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge. . . . Kamloops D Nolan Kneen also is at the WHC. . . . F Gage Quinney leads the Blazers in assists (12) and points (18). He has 11 points, including four goals, in six games since being acquired from the Kelowna Rockets.