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Blazers resume five-game trek in The Hat

Chance to move up in B.C. Division still there
January 12, 2016 9:15 P.M.

So . . . you are a follower of the Kamloops Blazers and you have a question.
How is it, you wonder, that your favourite team can move from seventh to fifth in the WHL’s 10-team Western Conference, and all the while its playoff fortunes don’t improve?
The Blazers went into the Christmas break in seventh place in the conference while holding down the conference’s first of two wild-card playoff berths. Since then, they have gone 4-3-2, allowing them to move past the Spokane Chiefs and Seattle Thunderbirds and into fifth place, and still they continue to hold down that same wild-card berth.
You can’t be blamed for wondering: What’s going on?
Well, the WHL’s playoff format is a mumble-jumble — the word ‘hybrid’ is used in the official explanation — that takes into account divisional standings, conference standings and more.
So . . . here’s the deal:
For starters, eight teams from each of the two conferences will qualify for the playoffs in which all series are best-of-seven affairs. For the purposes of this piece, we will focus on the Western Conference. The top three teams from each of the U.S. and B.C. divisions will get in, along with the teams that place seventh and eighth in the conference.
In the first round, the team that finishes atop the conference will play the wild-card team with the poorest record. The other division champion gets the other wild-card team.
Right now, those matchups would feature the Kelowna Rockets, as the top seed, against the Portland Winterhawks, with Everett, the U.S. Division leader, playing Kamloops.
Also in the first round, the second- and third-place teams in each division clash. In B.C., that would put the Victoria Royals up against the Prince George Cougars, while, in the U.S., it would be Seattle against Spokane.
What this means is that a team badly wants to finish in the top three in its division, rather than in a wild-card spot. Get into one of those top three positions and it means you avoid one of the top two seeds in the first round.
That, then, will be the Blazers’ mission for the remainder of this season.
Kamloops continues a five-game road trip against the Medicine Hat Tigers tonight.
The Blazers are coming off a weekend during which they won three games, beating the Tri-City Americans 3-2 in Kamloops on Friday and then journeying south to sweep the Winterhawks — 4-3 in OT and 3-0 — on Saturday and Sunday nights.
Those three victories mean the Blazers are 4-0-2 in their last six games; they also have closed to within six points of the second-place Cougars (26-15-2) and Royals (25-15-4), who are tied in the B.C. Division.
The Blazers are expected to have Czech left-winger Jiri Smejkal, 19, in the lineup for the first time after he met up with them in Medicine Hat yesterday. Smejkal was acquired Sunday from the Moose Jaw Warriors for Slovak defenceman Patrik Maier, 19.
There also is a chance that defenceman Dallas Valentine, 19, plays for the first time since he was injured in a game against the visiting Kelowna Rockets on Dec. 27. He has missed eight games.
Centre Gage Quinney and defenceman Dawson Davidson, both of whom are injured, didn’t make the trip, so will miss at least the next three games.
On this trip, the Blazers also will face the Lethbridge Hurricanes (Friday) and Edmonton Oil Kings (Sunday) before turning home to entertain Everett on Jan. 20.
The Tigers are led by forward Chad Butcher, a Kamloops native. He leads the Tigers in assists (29) and points (40).
Medicine Hat is ninth in the 12-team Eastern Conference, five points out of a playoff spot. The Tigers will be playing their third game without forward Cole Sanford. He was captain before being traded to the Regina Pats on Sunday.


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