The book that is the Kamloops Blazers’ 2015-16 WHL regular season is drawing to a close.
But, like any good book, the outcome is far from certain.
The Blazers, behind three goals from captain Matt Needham and more stellar goaltending from Connor Ingram, beat a stubborn bunch of Vancouver Giants, 4-2, on Saturday night at the Sandman Centre.
While the loss pretty much finished whatever playoff dreams the Giants had — with eight games remaining, they are 14 points out — the victory didn’t do much to clear up the Blazers’ picture.
The Blazers (29-24-9) now have points in three straight games (2-0-1) and are tied with the Spokane Chiefs, who also are 29-24-9, for the 10-team Western Conference’s two wild-card spots. The Tri-City Americans are four points off the pace, while the Chiefs are one point behind the third-place Portland Winterhawks in the U.S. Division.
While the Blazers aren’t likely to talk about it, at least not publicly, it would seem most advantageous for them to finish in the first wild-card spot, if at all possible. That would mean a first-round playoff date with the top team in the U.S. Division. The Everett Silvertips, beaten 3-2 in OT by the visiting Blazers on Friday, are first at the moment, three points ahead of the Seattle Thunderbirds, who will be at the Sandman Centre tonight (Sunday).
Were the Blazers to end up in the second wild-card spot, it would mean meeting up with the B.C. Division’s top team in the first round. That would be either the Kelowna Rockets or Victoria Royals, who just might be the two best teams in the league.
At the same time, the Blazers are fourth in the B.C. Division, three points behind the Prince George Cougars. Finish third
and you meet Kelowna or Victoria in the first round.
“We just want to make the playoffs,” Needham said. “I think we have a good enough team that we can beat anyone. We’ve proven that this season. We’ve played some good games against some good teams.
“We match up pretty well against Everett. That would be a good matchup for us. But we just want to get in.”
Needham, who is in his fifth and final WHL season, didn’t play Friday as he served a one-game suspension from a kneeing major and game misconduct he was hit with in a 4-3 shootout loss to the host Giants on Feb. 21.
“I watched the game (Friday) night,” he said. “It was a great team effort.”
His teammates, he said, “did everything they needed to do to win against a good team.”
He admitted that having to sit out also provided him with some extra energy on Saturday.
“I was a little bit pumped up,” he said. “I had a little extra jump in my step and it paid off.”
Needham, who now has 20 goals, scored the game’s first two goals, tipping in a Ryan Rehill point shot on a power play with nine seconds left in the first period and redirecting a Deven Sideroff centring pass at 2:31 of the second. Needham completed the hat trick — one hat made its way onto the ice — with an empty-netter at 19:17 of the third.
Moments before his third goal, Needham survived a scary moment when, while killing a penalty, he blocked a shot from left-winger Radovan Bondra with the side of his head. Fortunately, Needham’s helmet took most of the blow.
“It scared me a bit,” he said. “I saw it at the last second and just got my head turned.”
In a show of true sportsmanship, Bondra approached Needham as he was leaving the ice and touched gloves with him.
Two minutes later, Needham was on the ice again and completing his fine night.
After Needham’s first two goals, Bondra scored on a power play at 9:20 of the second period to get the Giants to within a goal.
The Blazers nursed that lead into the third period, thanks in large part to Ingram, until Collin Shirley, a left winger, took a faceoff in the Vancouver zone to the right of goaltender Jake Morrissey. Shirley poked the puck between the legs of Giants centre Dawson Holt, skated behind the net and scored on the playgrounder. Shirley’s team-leading 33rd goal came at 11:57.
Still, the Giants wouldn’t go away.
They pressed until left-winger Trevor Cox counted his 15th goal at 18:55. In the end, though, that only set the stage for Needham’s empty-netter.
“It wasn’t our best effort,” Needham said. “I didn’t think we were bad. There were times when we controlled the play and other times when we let them back in it. It wasn’t our best but we’ll take the two points.”
Kamloops head coach Don Hay agreed with his captain.
“It was a real intense game (Friday) night in Everett,” he said. “The emotional level wasn’t where we would have liked it to be (tonight), but we found a way.
“We had a pretty solid first period. We didn’t have a great second. I thought in the third we found a way to score goals at opportune times. We’ll take the two points — they’re really important for us — and get a little more rest and be ready for a tough game (Sunday).”
Ingram, the game’s first star, finished with 38 saves. His positioning has been so good that few of them were of the spectacular variety. Oh, there was a wonderful toe save on Cox 10 minutes into the first period, but that may have simply been Ingram’s way of sending the Giants a message.
“He just keeps on ticking,” Hay said of his sophomore goaltender. “He’s just really solid for us. He doesn’t get ruffled in the net. He stays really focussed and calm. It has to be calming for our group. We really rely on him.”
At the other end, Morrissey made 25 saves.
Which brings us to tonight.
Seattle arrives in Kamloops off an emotional 2-0 victory over the visiting Silvertips. On Friday, the Thunderbirds went into Kennewick, Wash., and beat the Americans, 4-2.
“We’ve got to take advantage,” Needham said. “Their travel is a lot worse than ours . . . probably getting in late tonight so we’ll have to take advantage of that. They’re a good team. They’re playing well this season.
“It’ll be a good game.”
After tonight, the Blazers will have nine games remaining, with four of those at home.
The book, indeed, is coming to an end.
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 3,887. . . . The Blazers were 1-for-2 on the power play; the Giants were 1-for-3. . . . Kamloops leads the season series, 4-0-3; the Giants are 3-3-1. The series concludes March 12 when Vancouver is back here. . . . The Blazers scratched F Erik Miller, F Spencer Bast and D Conner McDonald. . . . The Giants went without F Chase Lang, who has 62 points in 65 games, and D Tyler Brown. Lang was injured during Friday’s 4-3 loss to the visiting Kelowna Rockets. . . . Giants F Jack Flaman left after the first period with an undisclosed injury. . . . Vancouver has shut down at least five players for the rest of this season — F Tyler Benson, D Matt Barberis, D Ryely McKinstry, F Brendan Semchuk, who is from Kamloops, and F Johnny Wesley. . . . “They’ve had some tough injuries,” said Hay, who spent 10 years with the Giants before returning to Kamloops prior to the 2014-15 season. “It’s hard when you don’t have all your people available. They’re competing hard and that’s a credit to (head coach) Lorne (Molleken) and his staff.”
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