If you are going to be the best, you have to beat the best.
That pretty much describes the situation in which the Kamloops Blazers find themselves.
After starting the WHL’s regular season with six straight losses, the Blazers went on a real tear that has resulted in them now having a 9-8-2 record. They haven’t lost in regulation time in their last eight games (6-0-2); they are 7-1-2 in their last 10 outings.
While they have lost 10 games, seven were against the Western Conference’s top three teams — the Kelowna Rockets, Victoria Royals and Seattle Thunderbirds — against whom they are a combined 1-6-1. (Those three teams are a combined 43-18-3).
The Blazers were quite eager to play the Rockets on Wednesday night and, in one of the most entertaining games at the Sandman Centre this season, they dropped a 4-3 overtime decision.
The Rockets emerged from the game in a three-way tie — with Victoria and the Prince Albert Royals — for top spot in the overall standings.
If you were grading the Blazers against the Rockets, you might give them a C+ or a B-, but only because of a dreadful first period.
Kamloops came out tight in the first period and struggled to deal with the Rockets’ speed. Kelowna players were first to the loose pucks and dominated in the possession game. In fact, only Blazers goaltender Connor Ingram kept the locals in the game and allowed them to escape from the opening 20 minutes in a 1-1 draw.
Head coach Don Hay threw his forward lines into a blender in the second period and then, in the third, went back pretty much to the way he had started the game.
With forwards Jake Kryski and Matt Needham out with injuries, the Blazers again were led by the line of, left to right, Collin Shirley, Gage Quinney and Deven Sideroff. Shirley scored twice and Quinney had a number of chances against his former team but was victimized by some errant shooting.
“I was trying to get the nine forwards that were going the best,” Hay said. “That’s what we were looking for. At times, early in the game, we struggled with their speed. Once we adjusted, we got better.”
In the third period, the Blazers showed that they are capable of being competitive with the Rockets (15-5-1).
Tonight (Friday), Kamloops gets to show whether it can skate with another of the league’s top teams, the Thunderbirds (13-6-1), who arrive on a four-game winning streak. They also came in this week at No. 8 in the CHL rankings, two spots behind the Rockets.
“It’s a good test for us,” Hay said of playing the Thunderbirds. “We should be looking forward to that challenge. If we can
learn and grow from (Wednesday’s game), we’ll be ready for them.”
The Thunderbirds, whose lineup includes Kamloops native Ryan Gropp, lead the U.S. Division and are four points behind Western Conference-leading Kelowna and Victoria.
The Thunderbirds are coming off a 5-4 victory over the visiting Swift Current Broncos on Tuesday, a game in which Gropp had a goal and two assists. Seattle is 1-0-0 against the Blazers this season, having posted a 7-2 victory in Kent, Wash., on Oct. 16. That was the first game in which the Blazers had centre Gage Quinney and defenceman Dallas Valentine, both trade acquisitions, in their lineup.
Gropp is one of four players on the Seattle roster who is averaging at least a point per game.
Mathew Barzal, who often centres Gropp and Keegan Kolesar, has 30 points, including 25 assists, in 17 games, while Kolesar has 28 points, 14 of them goals, in 20 games. Gropp, with eight goals in his last 10 games, has 17 points, including 10 goals, in 17 games. Also in that club is defenceman Ethan Bear, with 22 points in 20 games.
JUST NOTES: The Blazers will visit the Thunderbirds on Feb. 3, with Seattle back here on Feb. 28 to conclude the four-game season series. . . . The Blazers are one-third of the way through their home schedule; they are 7-4-1 at home. . . . Seattle is 6-6-1 on the road but have won their last three games away from the ShoWare Centre in Kent. . . . Interestingly, the Thunderbirds have played only four games against U.S. Division opponents to this point, and they have only one U.S. team on their schedule through the end of November. . . . The Blazers are at home again on Saturday night, this time against the Edmonton Oil Kings (8-12-3), who are in Kelowna tonight.