The Calgary Hitmen had lost five of their previous six WHL games, so were badly in need of a lift when they took to the ice against the Kamloops Blazers on Friday night at the Sandman Centre.
The visitors, who were coming off 5-2 and 5-0 beatings at the hands of the Cougars in Prince George earlier in the week,
got just that from the return of veteran goaltender Brendan Burke on Friday night.
Burke, 20, hadn’t played since Oct. 2; in fact, he had hardly skated.
But the Scottsdale, Ariz., native held it together long enough for the Hitmen to get past the Kamloops Blazers 3-2 at the Sandman Centre.
“That was the longest I’ve skated in a while,” Burke said after his 22-save effort for which he was named the game’s first star.
Burke, the son of former NHL goaltender Sean Burke, was acquired by Calgary from the Portland Winterhawks at last season’s trade deadline. He was 13-3-2 with the Hitmen after the deal, and started this season by going 2-0-0, with a 0.72 GAA and a .971 save percentage. However, he suffered a knee injury during a 3-2 victory over the Wheat Kings in Brandon on Oct. 2. He was pitching a shutout when the knee, which he actually injured in the first period, forced him out early in the third.
After last night, his numbers are 3-0-0, 0.58, .978.
“I feel good,” he said. “Things haven’t been going great for us. But we’re battling.”
Burke wasn’t overly busy in this one, as the Blazers, at least until they scored their first goal, at 11:26 of the third period, really didn’t get much in the way of sustained pressure from their offence.
“Any time the opposition goalie is the first star of the game,” Kamloops head coach Don Hay said, “you’re not doing a good enough job getting to the net, creating traffic or creating rebounds.”
By the time, the Blazers got to that part of their game, they were trailing 3-0.
Centre Jesse Zaharichuk cut into that deficit by finishing off a nifty 3-on-2 at 11:26, and left-winger Jake Kryski got the locals to within one with a power-play goal at 13:22. Kryski was able to get his stick on a loose puck in the Calgary crease just before Burke was able to lower his catching mitt on top of it. Prior to that goal, the Blazers’ PP had been 4-for-43; only the Kootenay Ice have been poorer with the man advantage.
Considering that Burke was playing for the first time in a month, Hay said the Blazers talked about working to get more pucks on net.
“Look at the goals we got,” Hay said. “The first one was good middle drive and we were able to get people at the net, and the second one was a rebound with people at the net.”
Unfortunately, the Blazers just weren’t able to do that often enough.
“They had some good chances,” Burke said, “but they’re not really the kind of team that cycles in the offensive zone and wears you down. They get most of their chances off the rush.”
The Hitmen had a wide edge in possession in the early going but weren’t able to generate much in the way of shots.
They got the game’s first goal, at 2:35 of the first period, when right-winger Layne Bensmiller took a pass in tight from centre Beck Malenstyn and somehow was able to get a backhander almost straight up and under the crossbar.
If you’re wondering, Bensmiller, who is from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., is a second cousin to Kurt Bensmiller, who has won two straight Rangeland Derby championships at the Calgary Stampede.
But we digress . . .
Calgary managed just four shots in that first period, meaning that freshman goaltender Dylan Ferguson, making his second WHL start, was more spectator than participant.
“He was OK. I can’t blame him,” Hay said. “He didn’t have a lot of tough saves but he made some good saves. I can’t fault him for the goals they scored.”
At the other end, the Blazers managed eight shots on Burke, who looked sharp, especially with a right-pad stop on a point shot from defenceman Ryan Rehill during a power play and later in stopping winger Deven Sideroff who dipsy-doodled his way in tight.
The Hitmen went ahead 2-0 at 11:50 of the second period when Malenstyn scored his first goal this season, putting a second rebound past Ferguson following yet another turnover in the Kamloops zone.
The Hitmen appeared to be in complete control when they went ahead 3-0 at 5:21 of the third period when Jordy Stallard took a centring pass from Radel Fazleev and tucked the puck into an open side.
After the Blazers scored their two goals, and with Ferguosn on the bench for the extra attacker, Fazleev was the beneficiary of, yes, another Kamloops turnover and was able to scored into the empty net at 18:51.
“It was a funny type of game,” Hay said. “All four of their goals, we had the puck and we turned the puck over. I didn’t think we did a good job looking after the puck.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t have a more committed effort. I thought the effort was there but not committed enough, not focussed enough, not determined enough.
“We seemed to be one man off on every line. We didn’t seem to have the continuous effort that we have normally. I don’t think we got outplayed, but I don’t think we outplayed them either.
The Blazers (3-8-0), who went into last night having won three of their previous four games, now are off until Wednesday when they entertain Prince George.
The Hitmen (7-5-1) are scheduled to conclude a four-game B.C. Division swing tonight against the Rockets in Kelowna.
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 3,392. . . . The Hitmen have won their last five games in Kamloops. . . . The Blazers scratched F Erik Miller, F Matt Campese, D Conner McDonald and D Patrik Maier. . . . F Tristan Nielson of Fort St. John played his second straight game with the Hitmen. Nielson, 15, made his debut on Wednesday in Prince George. He was the 20th overall pick in the 2015 bantam draft. . . . Calgary D Taylor Sanheim didn’t play as he completed a three-game suspension. . . . The Hitmen also scratched D Colby Harmsworth. He took a puck to the head in Prince George on Tuesday, but did play Wednesday. . . . Also sitting were F Matt Dorsey, F Pavel Karnaukov and F Terrell Draude. . . . The Blazers and Hitmen will play once more this season, in Calgary on Feb. 8.
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 Ken Babey, the head coach of Canada’s national sledge team.