The Kamloops Blazers needed a victory on Friday night the way a man wandering the Gobi Desert needs water.
Their captain and their goaltender made certain that they got it.
Centre Matt Needham scored three times and goaltender Connor Ingram turned aside 28 shots as the Blazers got past the Tri-City Americans 3-2 at the Sandman Centre.
The Blazers (19-14-6), who had been 1-3-2 in their previous six outings, went into the game in sole possession of the
Western Conference’s first wild-card playoff spot. They now are three points ahead of the Portland Winterhawks, who lost 3-1 to the host Seattle Thunderbirds last night, and six in front of the Americans (17-22-2).
The Blazers won’t play at home again until Jan. 20 when they meet the Everett Silvertips. Kamloops left immediately after last night’s game for Portland where they are to play tonight and Sunday. Then they head into Alberta for three games — against the Medicine Hat Tigers (Wednesday), Lethbridge Hurricanes (Friday) and Edmonton Oil Kings (Jan. 17).
Needham, 20, is in his fifth season with the Blazers. This was his second career hat trick, and it likely should have been a four-goal night.
He had a partial breakaway at an empty Tri-City net with time running down in the third period, only to stumble, fall and fail to get off a shot. He had broken a blade while blocking a shot against the visiting Everett Silvertips on Saturday night and this was only the second time he had been on new ones.
“The rocker is a little off,” he said. “It would have been nice to get four but at least I had three. I would have been a lot angrier if I only had two.”
Needham pulled the Blazers into a 1-1 tie 21 seconds into the second period, after left-winger Beau McCue, the Americans’ captain, had given them the lead at 8:28 of the first period.
Then, at 2:44, Needham shot his guys into their first lead of the night.
His first two goals came from pretty much the same spot — about 20 feet out in the slot — and beat goaltender Evan Sarthou high to the glove side.
“It was kind of weird,” Needham said of the similarities. “The puck was bouncing and I got lucky on both of them.”
He said the scouting report on Sarthou was to “put things up” because “he takes way the bottom of the net so up high is usually open.”
Kamloops nursed that lead into the third period, only to have Tri-City defenceman Dylan Coghlan hammer a one-timer from the high slot past Ingram’s blocker at 8:48.
Considering that the Blazers’ last two home games had gone into extra time — they lost them both, too — this one appeared headed that way until Needham got his third goal at 10:51. He was parked on top of Sarthou’s crease and managed to redirect a Collin Shirley pass through the goaltender for his 12th goal of the season.
“I thought he was our best player,” Kamloops head coach Don Hay said of his captain. “Not only did he score three goals, but he really sacrificed his body . . . blocked a lot of shots. It would have been great to see him get that fourth goal. It was a great effort and he really led the team.
“Our first wasn’t great. We came out and we scored two goals early in the second and he was guy who led us.”
No, the Blazers’ first period wasn’t great, despite the fact they outshot the visitors, 9-7.
“They’ve got a big team,” Hay said of the Americans. “They kind of caught us by surprise in the first with their work ethic and their size.”
Tri-City has one forward line that should be called the Beef Line. Left-winger Mackenze Stewart is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, centre Austyn Playfair is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds and right-winger Max James, who is from Kamloops, goes 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. They figured in Tri-City’s second goal, with Stewart and James getting assists.
The Blazers did pick it up a bit late in the first period, and Needham said the players talked in the intermission about continuing to compete like that.
“We came out a little bit too flat,” he said. “In the second half of the first period, we started to play better. We wanted to keep rolling from there; we had some things to build on. We wanted to get in a good first 10 (minutes) . . . and I think we did that.”
They also got another good night from their penalty-killing unit, which is the best in the WHL. It was only called on twice but was perfect.
“Our best penalty-killer was our goalie,” Hay said. “He was really solid again.”
Ingram, an 18-year-old sophomore from Imperial, Sask., started for the 34th time in 39 games, something he said that doesn’t bother him at all.
“The more you play, the better it is,” he said. “The experience is getting up there and I’m getting more and more comfortable.
“I love it. It’s what keeps you playing.”
Asked how many of his team’s 72 games he feels he is capable of starting, he replied: “As many was we need. I can keep going. If it has to be all of them, it has to be all of them. If it happens to be 40, it happens to be 40.”
He’ll get tonight off as Hay said the plan is to start freshman Dylan Ferguson against the Winterhawks with Ingram going back in on Sunday.
The fact that the Blazers are heading out for five games made last night’s contest that much more important.
“We talked about that,” Needham said. “They are a team that is chasing us in the standings, so it’s good to get a little more separation there by taking advantage of a home game.”
Needham’s hat trick was the second of his career and came in game No. 287. He also scored three goals in a 5-4 loss to the visiting Victoria Royals on Jan. 19, 2013.
Centre Dylan Willick was the Blazers’ captain then. Interestingly, Willick scored three goals Friday as his U of New Brunswick Varsity Reds beat the visiting Dalhousie Tigers, 4-0. Naturally, his third goal came while he was killing a penalty.
Willick, 23, last scored three goals in a game while playing for the major midget Cariboo Cougars in Prince George.
Told of Willick’s hat trick last night, Needham smiled and said: “Good for him. Right on.”
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 4,139. . . . Each team was 0-for-2 on the power play. . . . Sarthou finished with 29 saves. . . . Kamloops D Ondrej Vala made a kick save and a beauty at 5:20 of the second period. With the Blazers leading 2-1, Ingram ended up down and out, forcing Vala to go to the ice and kick out a leg to stone RW Parker AuCoin. . . . Six of the Blazers’ seven post-Christmas games have been decided by one goal. They are 1-3-2 in those games. . . . Kamloops scratched F Gage Quinney, D Dallas Valentine and D Dawson Davidson, all with injuries, and D Patrik Maier, who has yet to rejoin the team after playing for Slovakia at the World Junior Championship. . . . The Americans were without D Brandon Carlo, 19, who won a bronze medal with Team USA at the WJC. He has been given a few days off and is at home in Colorado Springs, Colo. . . . D Liam Belcourt, a fourth-round pick in the 2015 bantam draft, made his WHL debut with Tri-City. He is from Sherwood Park, Alta, and plays for the Okanagan Hockey Academy-Edmonton. . . .
Former Blazers LW Brendan Ranford will take part in the AHL’s All-Star Classic in Syracuse, N.Y., on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. The weekend will follow the same format as the NHL’s all-star stuff, with a skills competition and 3-on-3 games. Ranford, who will skate with the Pacific Division team, has 28 points, including 10 goals, in 38 games with the Texas Stars. . . . Former Blazers head coach Dean Evason, who is the head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals, will be on the Central Division coaching staff. . . .
If you haven’t already, visit TheCoachesSite.com for WHL trade news and other information.