After a whole lot of homecooking through the first part of the WHL’s regular season, the Kamloops Blazers left Tuesday on a long trek into the six-team East Division.
While there, the Blazers will play six games in nine nights, beginning with a Friday night engagement with the Saskatoon Blades.
The Blazers head east having played more home games (17) and fewer road games (9) than any of the other 21 teams.
Until their last two games, the Blazers had played quite well at home, where they are 9-5-3. In fact, prior to Friday, they were 7-0-2 at the Sandman Centre since losing 4-2 to the Calgary Hitmen on Oct. 23. But the Blazers gave up a late goal and lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Portland Winterhawks on Friday and, one night later, surrendered a 3-2 lead in dropping a 5-4 decision to the Medicine Hat Tigers, who came in having lost six straight and nine in a row on the road.
So perhaps it was time for the Blazers to hit the highway in search of their checking game, something head coach Don Hay feels deserted them in those two games.
The Blazers (12-10-4) begin the trip in possession of the Western Conference’s first wild-card playoff spot. They are fourth in the B.C. Division, eight points behind the Prince George Cougars (17-9-2), and seventh in the Western Conference, four points behind the Everett Silvertips (15-9-2). At the same time, the Blazers are two points ahead of Portland (13-14-0).
Here’s a quick look at the six teams the Blazers will meet on this trip:
SASKATOON BLADES — The trip opens there on Friday night. . . . The Blades (10-15-3) are four points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot. . . . They have lost four in a row and eight of 10. They last played Friday when they dropped a 5-3 decision to the Wheat Kings in Brandon. . . . Saskatoon has six 16-year-olds on its roster and has cleared ice time for the youngsters by trading D Brycen Martin, 19, to the Everett Silvertips and F Josh Uhrich, 19, to the Seattle Thunderbirds. . . . F Cameron Hebig leads the Blades in goals (12), assists (18) and points (30). . . . Brock Hamm (7-8-2, 3.92, .881) and Jake Morrissey (0-2-0, 4.84, .838) are the goaltenders. Morrissey started the season with the Kelowna Rockets; he joined the Blades last week after Nik Amundrud was traded to Calgary.
PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS — The Blazers are scheduled to play here on Saturday and it the only Teddy Bear game they will encounter on this swing. . . . The Raiders (18-9-3) dropped a 2-1 decision to the Oil Kings in Edmonton last night. . . . The Raiders, under the tutelage of former Blazers head coach Marc Habscheid, are second in the Eastern Conference, a point out of first and a pint out of third. . . . F Reid Gardiner leads the Raiders with 19 goals, 23 assists and 42 points. . . . They are getting great mileage out of D Jesse Lees, who came over last season from Kelowna. He’s got 25 points, including nine goals, in 29 games. . . . F Simon Stransky, their second-leading scorer, will be with the Czech Republic’s national junior team. . . . G Ian Scott, at 16, is one of the WHL’s top freshmen. He’s 7-3-0, 2.93, .908. Rylan Parenteau (11-5-3, 2.81, .914) is the other goaltender.
REGINA PATS — The Blazers move on to meet the Pats on Tuesday. . . . The Pats (14-11-3) have just completed a nine-game road swing; they always go on the road late in November when Agribition takes over their home arena. . . . The Pats went 4-3-2 in those games, leaving them holding down the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card playoff spot. . . . Regina will be without D Sergey Zborovskiy, who is en route to Moscow and the Russian national junior team’s selection camp. . . . The Pats dealt G Daniel Wapple 20, to the Vancouver Giants, giving the No. 1 job to Tyler Brown (6-8-1, 3.03, .917). . . . F Adam Brooks leads the Pats in goals (14), assists (23) and points (37). . . . F Sam Steel, the best NHL prospect on the roster, has eight goals and 20 assists in 28 games. He’s a potential first-round selection in the NHL’s 2016 draft.
BRANDON WHEAT KINGS — There isn’t any rest for the weary, with the Blazers meeting the East Division’s most talented team on Dec. 16. . . . The Wheat Kings will be without D Ivan Provorov, F John Quenneville and F Jayce Hawryluk, all of whom have national junior team commitments. . . . Kelly McCrimmon, the general manager and head coach, also will be missing as he is an assistant coach with Canada’s national junior team. . . . In McCrimmon’s absence, assistant coaches Darren Ritchie and David Anning will be in charge. . . . Brandon (17-9-3) has been struggling to find consistency. The biggest problem has been an ineffective power play that may be finding its way now that F Tim McGauley is back after a two-month absence. . . . That power play is 17th, at 17.1 per cent. . . . F Nolan Patrick, who will be an early pick in the NHL’s 2017 draft, has 32 points, including 25 assists, in 29 games. . . . G Jordan Papirny (8-8-3, 2.73, .894) is No. 1 on the depth chart, but Logan Thompson (9-1-0, 2.14, .918) is pushing for playing time.
MOOSE JAW WARRIORS — After getting a day off, the Blazers will visit Moose Jaw on Dec. 18. . . . The Warriors will be without F Brayden Point, their best player. Perhaps surprisingly, the Warriors are 4-2-2 without Point, who was leading the WHL scoring race when he suffered a shoulder injury. He will leave this week to join Canada’s national junior team. . . . Moose Jaw (15-9-5) is in the thick of the race for the top in the Eastern Conference as it prepares to play host to Brandon tonight. . . . D Marc McNulty, acquired from the Blazers in a deal that had D Dallas Valentine go the other way, has found his game in Moose Jaw. He’s got 21 points, including 19 assists, in 22 games with the Warriors. . . . F Jayden Halbgewachs, taken 19th overall by the Blazers in the 2012 bantam draft, has 14 points, four of them goals, in 26 games. . . . F Dryden Hunt, 20, has 19 goals and 24 assists in 29 games. . . . Zach Sawchenko (11-5-3, 2.92, .916) is one of the WHL’s best goaltenders.
SWIFT CURRENT BRONCOS — The road trip wraps up here on Dec. 19. . . . Not much has gone right for the Broncos (8-17-4) this season. They have lost 11 in a row (0-9-2). In their last two games, both on the road, they lost 2-1 on a late third-period goal to the Edmonton Oil Kings and 2-1 in OT to the Calgary Hitmen. Those were the WHL’s biggest Teddy Bear games, too, so also featured lengthy delays. . . . The result is that they are 10th in the 12-team Eastern Conference, nine points out of a playoff spot. . . . F Jon Martin, 20, who was acquired from the Kootenay Ice, has 39 points, 23 of them goals, in 27 games. . . . F Glenn Gawdin, a point-a-game skater, is out with an injury. . . . Both goaltenders, Landon Bow and Travis Child, have terrific save percentages — .914 and .922, respectively — but the Broncos have struggled to score. Bow is 6-12-3 with a 3.19 GAA, while Child is 2-5-1 with a 2.76 GAA.
Once the trip is complete, the Blazers will break for Christmas. The players will return to Kamloops on Dec. 26, and things heat up the next night. The Blazers are at home to the Kelowna Rockets on Dec. 27 and play in the Little Apple the next night. Then, the Victoria Royals come to town for games on Dec. 30 and Jan. 1.
At this point, the Rockets and Royals are the Western Conference’s top two teams.
JUST NOTES: F Collin Shirley leads the Blazers in goals (17) and points (33), while F Gage Quinney has a team-high 20 assists. He has 32 points. . . . The Blazers will be without D Patik Maier who is on his way to the Slovakian national junior team’s selection camp. If he makes the team, he won’t be back until early in January. . . . Blazers fans donated 2,215 stuffed toys, 653 winter accessories, 2,500 pounds of food and $1,400 at the annual Teddy Bear Game on Saturday. The food and money went to the Kamloops Food Bank.
If you haven’t already, visit TheCoachesSite.com for more WHL news and notes. You also will find a free eBook — A Coaching Life — that features stories on eight prominent coaches. Feel free to take a look.