If you had watched the Kamloops Blazers lose their first six games of this WHL regular season, you might not have expected them to get their heads above water for a long, long time.
The Blazers put a second licking in 10 days on the Prince George Cougars, beating the visitors 5-2 on Saturday night at the Sandman Centre. That victory, Kamloops’ fifth in a row, improved the Blazers’ record to — wait for it! — 8-8-0.
Had illusionist David Copperfield witnessed the Blazers’ disappearing act in those first few games, even he would be impressed with what has transpired.
The Blazers, who beat the visiting Cougars 6-1 on Oct. 28, now have won five straight games and seven of eight. They are in possession of a playoff spot and are just one point behind the Cougars (8-7-1), who hold down third place in the five-team B.C. Division.
At the same time, the Blazers have pulled five points ahead of the cellar-dwelling Vancouver Giants (4-10-3), who have lost eight in a row (0-7-1).
Last night, after a scoreless first period in which the Blazers held a 13-11 edge in shots, the home boys scored two second-period goals and appeared to take complete control with a goal early in the third period.
“I thought we kind of played in spurts,” Kamloops head coach Don Hay said. “First period, I thought we controlled the
play but, when you look at it, it was a good road period for Prince George.
“In the second period, we took over . . . we capitalized on our opportunities.”
Hay had scratched winger Matt Campese from Friday’s 2-1 victory in Vancouver, but had him on the left side with Matt Needham and Deven Sideroff last night. It paid off with a 1-0 lead 14 seconds into the second period when Campese went hard to the left post and redirected a hard pass from Sideroff in behind goaltender Mack Shields, who would finish with 26 saves.
“We’ve been trying to find someone to fit there,” Hay said of the spot that was filled last season by Cole Ully, who was the team’s leading scorer and now is with the AHL’s Texas Stars. “We’ve tried Matt there before. He hasn’t been able to be consistent in his play. Hopefully, this will jump-start him.”
That line figured in the Blazers’ second goal, too, as they upped their lead at 16:38 when defenceman Dallas Davidson, the trailer on a 3-on-2 break, took a pass from Sideroff and fired a wrist shot past Shields.
When defenceman Patrik Maier pounded a slapshot from the point behind Shields for a 3-0 lead at 2:33 of the third period, it looked like this one was over. But . . .
“In the third,” Hay said, continuing his summation, “we let our foot off the gas pedal a little bit . . .”
Yes, they did.
Cougars forward Jared Bethune waltzed around Maier on the right wing and went in to beat Kamloops goaltender Connor Ingram at 13:45. Suddenly, the Cougars had hope.
They found even more when Kody McDonald took advantage of a turnover in the Kamloops zone and beat Ingram to cut the deficit to one goal at 15:46.
“We got a l title sloppy,” Hay said. “We gave them an out with that first goal. Once you get life . . . they pushed a little harder and they got rewarded for it.”
However, left-winger Collin Shirley became the first of the Blazers with 10 goals this season when he counted at 17:20 and added an empty-netter at 19:07.
In the moments before Maier’s goal, Ingram had made perhaps his two best stops of the night, stoning forward Jansen Harkins from the lip of the crease and getting a glove on a shot off the left wing by Colby McAuley. Those might have seemed as minutiae at the time, what with the Blazers holding a 2-0 lead that soon would be 3-0. But, after the visitors scored twice, well, those saves were larger than ever.
Ingram had sparkled Friday in a 2-1 victory over the host Giants, a game in which the Blazers killed off all seven Vancouver power-play opportunities.
“Ingram has been playing well,” Hay said of his goaltender, who was credited with 35 saves a night after he had turned aside 31.
In his previous start, against the visiting Spokane Chiefs on Tuedsay, Ingram was lifted in the second period after allowing four goals. When he left, the Blazers were trailing, 4-0. They came back and won 5-4 on an OT goal from Shirley.
“That was our fault,” offered Kamloops centre Gage Quinney. “That had nothing to with goaltending. That was definitely our fault.
“The goalie really helped us out (in Vancouver).”
He helped them out again last night, too.
“We’re a team that is improving,” Hay said. “We’re back to .500. When you’re 0-6 and you work your way back to.500, that’s the first step. We have to keep rolling.”
The Blazers don’t play again until Friday, when they return to Vancouver. Kamloops’ next home game is Nov. 13, 6 p.m., against those same Cougars.
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 4,076, the largest crowd in 10 home games this season. . . . The crowd included about 30 members of the Cougars brand new fan club who rode a bus south for the game. . . . The Blazers were 0-for-2 on the PP; the Cougars were 0-for-3. . . . Kamloops last won as many as five straight early in February 2013. That time, the streak reached seven. . . . The Blazers scratched F Erik Miller, F Jesse Zaharichuk, D Cam Reagan and D Nolan Kneen. . . . The Cougars went without G Nick McBride, D Luka Zorko, F Kolby Johnson, D Max Martin and D Tate Olson. The latter two have undisclosed injuries. . . . Harkins, a second-round pick by the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL’s 2015 draft, had missed the previous three games with an illness. . . . McBride, who was acquired earlier in the week from the Prince Albert Raiders, has yet to suit up with the Cougars. . . . Kamloops D Ryan Rehill celebrated his 20th birthday by playing in his 201st regular-season game.
There’s more WHL news with Taking Note at TheCoachesSite.com. While you’re there, don’t forget to get your free copy of A Coaching Life, an eBook that features eight prominent coaches, including the Blazers’ Don Hay and former Blazers F Ryan Huska, who how is the head coach of the Stockton Heat, the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Calgary Flames.