And so it comes down to this. . . .
The Kamloops Blazers’ 72-game WHL regular season that began on Sept. 25 in Kelowna will end with a pair of games next weekend, at least one of which will be meaningful.
The Blazers, you may recall, began this season by losing their first six games. On Saturday night, they ran their winning
streak to seven games by squeaking past the Vancouver Giants 2-1, but they needed a shootout goal from winger Jake Kryski to get it done, at the Sandman Centre.
The Blazers’ longest winning streak this season has allowed them to vacate the uncertainty of the WHL’s wild-card mess and get into third place in the B.C. Division. Not only that, but the Blazers now hold a four-point edge on the Prince George Cougars, who are scheduled to meet the Royals in Victoria this afternoon in a game that is to be available on one of the Sportsnet channels.
The Blazers (36-25-9) and Cougars (36-28-5) then will begin planning for a season-ending home-and-home series. They will play in Kamloops on Friday and in Prince George on Saturday.
Depending on how the Cougars fare in Victoria, the Blazers could wrap up third place in the division with a victory on Friday, or it all could come down to Saturday in Prince George.
A third-place finish would set up a first-round best-of-seven series with the second-place finisher. Right now that is the Kelowna Rockets (46-18-4), who are two points behind Victoria. The Rockets have four games remaining after they beat the host Spokane Chiefs 6-1 last night. Kelowna is to visit the Tri-City Americans this evening.
Last night, the Blazers were playing their fourth game in five days — the first three of which were on the road — and there were times, especially in the second period, when fatigue showed.
The Blazers were coming off a highly charged 4-3 overtime victory in Kelowna on Friday night, their third victory over the Rockets in eight nights. Kamloops simply wasn’t able to reach those heights last night, especially in the second period, against a Vancouver team that is 23-39-8 and out of the playoff chase.
“I didn’t think we played very well,” Kamloops head coach Don Hay said of the second period. “I thought we played really light. We spent too much time in our zone for too long. We weren’t crisp.”
If anything, he blamed it on “mental fatigue.”
“I thought we picked it up really well in the third,” he added.
Right-winger Radovan Bondra gave the Giants a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal at 11:39 of the second period, his low snapshot from the left point beating goaltender Connor Ingram. Just moments earlier, Ingram had stymied Bondra on a breakaway.
The Giants, with goaltender Ryan Kubic more than holding his own with a 38-save night, nursed that lead into the third period, until centre Gage Quinney scored his 28th goal of the season on a power play at 7:06.
“(Friday) night was a very intense, emotional game,” Hay said. “Tonight, I thought both teams played a real quick first period. It looked like it was a no-hitter and nobody wanted to get too involved. I thought we played a good first period but we didn’t finish at the net. We could have really taken charge had we scored early in the game.
“But give Vancouver credit. They hung in there. The young goalie played really well for them and they made us work for everything we were able to get.
“Being down one goal, I think that kind of flattered us a little bit. To get the goal in the third period . . . I thought we had a good third period.”
The Giants, outshot 14-6 in the third period, came out skating in the OT and had some glorious chances, none better
than when left-winger Trevor Cox broke in alone. Ingram stuffed him, only to have Cox get to the rebound. But he slid the puck behind Ingram, through the crease and out the other side.
“Night after night after night. . . . For us, Connor . . . you just feel so much confidence in him, in any situation, whether it’s 5-on-5, overtime or the shootout,” Hay said of his goaltender, who stopped 30 shots through OT and three more in the shootout in his 60th start of the season. “We just feel he’ll give us a chance to win.”
Asked about his team’s inability to score on numerous chances, Vancouver head coach Lorne Molleken shrugged and offered up a two-word answer: “The goalie.”
Kryski, first up in the shootout, tucked the puck through Kubic’s five-hole and that goal stood up as the winner.
Ingram sealed the victory by getting his blocker on a hard shot by Cox, who was the final shooter.
While the Blazers no doubt will have enjoyed the victory, they will know that they weren’t at their best.
“This was probably the worst game we played in a long, long time as far as intensity and focus . . . sometimes you have games like that and you find a way to win, and we did tonight,” Hay said. “We played four games in five days with travel and we found a way . . . I’m pretty proud of the group right now. We’ve set ourselves up for next weekend. We just need a day off and we’ll get back at it on Monday.”
Hay also likes the way things are set up for the series with Prince George.
As he put it: “We’re in the driver’s seat. We have to look after ourselves, continue to play well, and make sure that we’re ready to play on Friday.”
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 5,664. It was the last ticket-exchange game of this season. . . . The Blazers were 1-for-2 on the power play; the Giants were 1-for-3. . . . Ingram was saluted as the game’s second star. He has been one of the three stars in 33 of his 60 starts. . . . The Blazers scratched G Cole Kehler, F Erik Miller, F Spencer Bast and D Conner McDonald. . . . The Giants were without F David Brumm, F Jack Flaman, D Tyler Brown, D Matt Barberis, F Tyler Benson, D Ryely McKinstry, F Brendan Semchuk and F Johnny Wesley. . . . Kamloops went 5-0-3 in the season series, while the Giants were 3-3-2. Five of the games ended up going past regulation time.
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