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Blazers romp past red-hot Hurricanes

Goaltending, terrific start keys to victory
By Gregg Drinnan
October 30, 2015 10:26 P.M.

It’s almost as though the Kamloops Blazers approached the WHL’s regular season as though it was a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
In the beginning, they tried to put too many pieces in the wrong places.
But soon the pieces started to fall into place and, before too long, the players started to look like they knew what they were doing.
On Friday night, at the Sandman Centre, the Blazers took another giant step towards finishing that puzzle as they blitzed the red-hot Lethbridge Hurricanes, 7-3.
You have to understand that while the Blazers were starting 0-6-0, the Hurricanes were getting off to their best start (10-2-0) since 1996-97. How did the Hurricanes do that season? They won the WHL championship.
Now, granted, the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs in each of the past six seasons. But this bunch arrived in Kamloops having won eight straight games, including victories over the Victoria Royals (4-3, OT) and Vancouver Giants (5-2) earlier in the week.
None of that seemed to mean much to the Blazers, though, as they owned this game pretty much from the opening faceoff, as they had on Wednesday when they whipped the visiting Prince George Cougars, 6-1.
“We knew we were playing against a hot team and a hot goaltender,” Kamloops head coach Don Hay said, “so our start was really important and we came out really focussed.”
They did that. The Blazers scored 33 seconds into the first period. Then, when Lethbridge equalized, Kamloops went ahead again just 45 seconds later. Two more goals, in a span of 1:10, allowed the home boys to take a 4-1 lead and, eventually, it was 4-2 going into the second period.
In the process, they drove Lethbridge goaltender Stuart Skinner to the bench, if only for 36 seconds in the middle of the first period. Skinner later left for good, replaced by Jayden Sittler, after the Blazers took a 6-1 lead at 4:58 of the second period.
“We wanted to start like we did last game,” Hay said, referring to Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over the visiting Prince George Cougars. “We scored some really nice goals because we were attacking with speed and we really put pucks on the net, which we’ve been trying to do.”
Hay then summed up the entire game this way: “Good start. Good second period. I wish we could have had a little better third period . . . we kind of dropped off a little bit. Again, real nice to get the win . . . try to keep this going.”
But what has happened to this team that has allowed it to go from losing six in a row to winning four of five and five of seven?
“I don’t know if you can pinpoint one specific thing,” veteran defenceman Ryan Rehill said. “The energy is more upbeat in the room when we win and I think that feeling has gotten into our group.
“It’s the way we’re playing, our compete level. We’re starting to do the right things consistently and what the coaches are asking of us, and it’s working out for us.
“Our work ethic and our commitment to playing better defence has definitely helped us. It’s helping us be quicker out of our zone and, in turn, giving us more time in the offensive zone.”
Team captain Matt Needham talked about the team focussing on having better starts. He also gave credit to Peter Soberlak, who is in his second season as the team’s mental performance coach.
Needham said Soberlak has worked with the players on mental preparation, in particular on how to get into a routine and stick with it when the team is at home.
Last night’s victory, Needham added, can only be good for the confidence.
“Lethbridge has been a good team all season,” he said. “It was nice to dominate like that. They only had nine shots going into the third period.”
The Blazers also showed some terrific offensive balance, as they got goals from seven forwards. Gage Quinney, Matt Revel and Collin Shirley each had a goal and two assists, with forward Quinn Benjafield getting his first goal of the season and adding an assist. Nick Chyzowski, Jesse Zaharichuk and Garrett Pilon also scored, while Jake Kryski had two assists.
“That’s a great sign,” Hay said of the balanced scoring. “I really like the contribution of our whole group. All the lines are really working hard, creating and putting pucks on the net. they are playing with some passion. The passion and the energy leads to lots of emotion.”
The Hurricanes got two goals from Giorgio Estephan and one from Ryley Lindgren, while Brayden Burke had two assists, giving him a WHL-leading 21.
Estephan could have had three or four goals in the first period were it not for the play of Blazers goaltender Connor Ingram, who finished with 18 saves.
In fact, Ingram’s glove save off an Estephan re-direction with 10.9 seconds left in the opening period may well have been a game-changer. It allowed the Blazers to take a 4-2 lead, rather than 4-3, into the dressing room.
“Our goaltending has been really, really solid,” Hay said. “I thought he was good again tonight. They didn’t have a lot of shots early but he made some real good saves. When we break down there’s usually a pretty good opportunity out of it. We have to clean that up for sure. But Connor has been playing very well.”
The Blazers next play on Tuesday when they entertain the Spokane Chiefs, who will be five games into a six-game road trip. The Chiefs, who beat the Rebels 3-1 in Red Deer last night, play the Oil Kings in Edmonton on Sunday before heading this way.
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 3,165. . . . The Blazers scratched D Nolan Kneen (U-17 World Hockey Challenge), F Erik Miller, F Spencer Bast and D Cam Reagan. . . . Lethbridge went without F Jordy Bellerive, F Brett Davis and D Nick Watson, all of whom are at the WHC, and D Brandon Kennedy. . . . Lethbridge’s eight-game winning streak was its longest since November 2007 when it won nine in a row. . . . Skinner gave up six goals on 24 shots; Sittler allowed one on 14. . . . The Blazers were 1-for-4 on the PP; the Hurricanes were 1-for-3. . . . Even in defeat, it was easy to see that Lethbridge’s line of Estephan, Burke and veteran Tyler Wong has something special going on. The three have combined for 66 points in 13 games. . . . The Hurricanes are scheduled to play the Rockets in Kelowna tonight. . . . Prince George beat the host Rockets 2-1 last night.

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