Maybe the Kamloops Blazers are starting to figure out this hockey thing.
After opening the WHL regular season with a franchise record six straight losses, the Blazers now have won three of four games after they got past the Victoria Royals 3-2 at the Sandman Centre.
The victory allowed the Blazers (3-7-0) to vacate the Western Conference cellar, leaving it to the idle Portland Winterhawks (2-6-0). The Royals (7-4-0) remain tied for top spot with the Kelowna Rockets (7-4-0).
The last time the Royals were in town, they stole away with a 3-1 victory, courtesy of a late shorthanded goal by forward Logan Fisher that broke a 1-1 tie.
This time, the Blazers turned the tables, winning on a last-minute goal by left-winger Collin Shirley, who was the best player on the ice.
“That was a big goal at a critical time of the game,” said Blazers head coach Don Hay after Shirley scorched a couple of defencemen and Victoria goaltender Coleman Vollrath with 31.1 seconds left in the third period. “It was a real nice effort to beat a couple of players. It shows the skill that he has.”
Defenceman Dallas Valentine, who was acquired last week from the Moose Jaw Warriors, started the play by getting the puck to forward Matt Revel.
“It was a good play by (Valentine) getting it up to (Revel),” Shirley said, “and he took a big hit to make a play. That was huge. I got the puck and was initially thinking ‘drive wide and try and take it to the net.’ But I thought I would throw it on net and good things happen when you do that. It was nice to get.”
Joe Hicketts, the Kamloops native who is the Royals’ best defenceman and team captain, had a slim chance at stopping Shirley, but came up short.
“(There was) a miscommunication between the back-checking forward and the D,” Hicketts said. “I kind of shifted over and he got the shot off . . . he made a good shot. I don’t think you can blame the goalie on that one.”
No, you couldn’t. Vollrath, who has started all 11 of the Royals’ games, finished with 31 saves, four more than Connor Ingram of the Blazers, who beat Victoria for the first time in four tries.
This was a game that was best-described by Hay, who referred to it as a “chess match.”
“It was really tight,” he said. “Both teams looked good at times and both teams looked tight at times. I just thought we stuck with it and it came out in our favour.
“Both teams checked hard . . . . the first team to make a mistake wasn’t going to come out on top. We were able to capitalize on their mistake and we won the game.”
Like a chess match, this game may have swung on a move that occurred near its mid-point. With 8:09 left in the second period, Valentine chipped the puck into the glass on the right side of the Victoria zone. The pane that was struck by the puck shattered like a Corningware plate when it hits the kitchen floor— luckily no one seated in that area was injured — and a 13-minute delay ensued.
“They seemed to build a little momentum of it,” Hicketts said. “That’s kind of where our struggles started. The guys got a little antsy on the bench and they wouldn’t let us skater after. It’s not an excuse, but it’s something we can learn from going forward.”
A chuckling Hay said the lengthy delay “gave me time to think.”
Having been given that time, Hay chose to juggle his lines and his club, for whatever reason, gained some energy from the moves.
“I thought our team got better after the glass broke . . . I thought we came out with a little more energy,” he said.
The Royals came out ready for this one, as usual, and got on the board first when forward Vladimir Bobylev beat Ingram with a high wrist shot off the left wing at 3:34. The goal came just as a penalty to Kamloops defenceman Ryan Rehill expired.
The Blazers bounced back, though, and equalized at 7:21 with Shirley, now with a team-high six goals, depositing a rebound with Vollrath down and out to the left side.
Victoria retook the lead just 3:03 later with forward Dante Hannoun shooting from the left wing and somehow getting the puck through Ingram’s glove and into the net.
Victoria held a 10-7 edge in shots over the first 20 minutes and really had a number of terrific scoring chances. But the visitors were guilty of missing the net a lot and Ingram did come up with three or four really solid stops.
“We had enough chances,” Hicketts said. “You go in the room and you’re feeling good about yourself. But we took our foot off the gas pedal and let them back in the game.”
The Blazers got it together in the second period as they outshot Victoria, 15-11. The home boys also pulled even at 16:02 when left-winger Gage Quinney, in his first home game since being acquired last week from the Kelowna Rockets, hacked the puck towards the net and had it hit centre Matt Needham on a foot and bounced past Vollrath.
With speedy winger Deven Sideroff in the lineup for the first time this season, Hay had a full complement available. He liked what he saw.
“I like our lineup,” he said. “But we have to get off to a better start than we did. That first period was kind of all over the place. Hopefully, this game will give us a little bit of confidence and we will continue to get better. This is an important homestand for us.”
Shirley said the Blazers were well aware that they had already lost three times to Victoria — twice on the Island and once here.
“We didn’t mention it too much,” he said. “We knew what we had to focus on. We can’t dwell on the past . . . it turned out good tonight.
“Not so much the goal, but just getting the win. . . . Right now we’re focused on wins and we’ve strung two together, which is huge.”
The Royals, meanwhile, now have lost three straight.
“That’s three straight losses that we’ve had the opportunity to win a game and we’ve kind of let it get away by not playing and competing for 60 minutes,” Hicketts said. “That’s something we have to work on, whether in practice or pre-game skates or just showing up at the rink and wanting to be here.”
The Royals had dropped a 4-2 decision to the Seattle Thunderbirds in Kent, Wash., on Saturday, after which they drove to Kamloops. Hicketts’ parents, Lee-Gaye and Mike, had the team over on Sunday.
“There was a home-cooked meal for the guys,” Joe said, “and they enjoyed it.”
You can bet they enjoyed it more than last night’s game.
JUST NOTES: Announced attendance was 3,136. . . . The Blazers’ roster sits at 25, meaning there will be five scratches per game. Last night, they sat out F Chasetan Braid, F Spencer Bast, D Nolan Kneen, F Jermaine Loewen and D Patrik Maier. . . . The roster likely is two skaters over what Hay would like, so there might be a change or two in the wind. . . . The Blazers were 0-for-4 on the PP; the Royals were 0-for-2. . . . The Blazers and Royals won’t meet again until a Dec. 30 date in Kamloops. The Royals also play here on New Year’s Day. . . . The Blazers meet the visiting Calgary Hitmen on Friday, 7 p.m. The game is up against the Game 6 of the ALCS between the Toronto Blue Jays and the host Kansas City Royals, which is scheduled to start shortly after 5 p.m. . . . You can bet the game will be shown on the video screens and TVs in the building and there also will be $2 hotdogs available. . . . The Hitmen are bound to be a surly bunch on Friday after they lost 5-2 to the Cougars in Prince George on Tuesday and 5-0 last night.
There’s more WHL news with Taking Note at TheCoachesSite.com. While you’re there, don’t forget to get your free copy — yes, it’s absolutely free — of A Coaching Life, an eBook that features eight prominent coaches, including the Blazers’ Don Hay.