When this one was over, the Kamloops Blazers were toasting their penalty killers.
Oh, and their goaltender. Again.
The Blazers, backstopped by goaltender Connor Ingram, killed off four minor penalties in the opening half of the second period and that keyed a 5-0 WHL victory over the Spokane Chiefs on Wednesday night at the Sandman Centre.
Leading 2-0, and looking to be in complete control, the Blazers walked into the four penalties in the span 2:12, starting
with defenceman Ryan Rehill’s interference penalty at 5:39.
Just 1:03 later, centre Gage Quinney was sent off for boarding. Nine seconds after that, Rehill was hit with a double minor for high-sticking.
Gifted the opportunity to get right back in this one, the Chiefs looked the horse squarely in the mouth and didn’t do a thing.
Of course, at least some of the Chiefs’ lack of success was due to the home team’s penalty killers and Ingram, who finished with 27 saves in posting his fourth shutout of the season.
“The penalty kill was outstanding,” Kamloops head coach Don Hay said. “I thought we did an awesome job winning faceoffs, blocking shots . . . six minutes in a row we were shorthanded. We did a real good job.”
As usual, the Blazers also got solid work from Ingram, who improved his record to 27-15-9 in his 54th start of the season. He lowered his GAA to 2.72, sixth-best in the WHL, while his save percentage improved one point to .918, and only four goaltenders are better.
“There was nothing too crazy,” said Ingram, who had a fairly routine night. He felt he faced only two odd-man rushes in the first period “and after that it was pretty much all from the outside. I saw everything, so it was a good day.”
Well, there was one thing he admitted that he didn’t see.
Left-winger Jermaine Loewen, the fan favourite, scored the game’s last goal and, down the road, that may turn into the night’s biggest story.
When he gains possession of the puck in the neutral zone, Loewen, a sophomore, almost always plays dump and chase. On this occasion, though, he built up a head of speed, went wide on the defender and drove to the Spokane net. With centre Garrett Pilon creating traffic by tying up a defender in front of goaltender Tyson Verhelst, Loewen was able to cut across the top of the crease and deposit a neat backhander for his seventh goal this season.
He then skated into a corner, launched himself at the glass and stumbled on the landing.
“I tried not to watch it,” Ingram said of Loewen’s celebration. “I knew it was going to be messy.”
All kidding aside, that is the kind of play that turns an average power forward into a threat.
“Jermaine’s goal is what we’ve been seeing in practice,” Hay said. “He just hasn’t been able to bring it to a game yet. He’s been doing that in practice but he hasn’t been able to take it to the game because of a little bit of confidence and nerves . . . for him to do that, that’s going to be a big confidence-builder for him.”
Loewen, whose parents, Tara and Stan, are in town from Arborg, Man., for a few days, admitted that it’s a confidence thing.
“I know I have the ability,” he said. “I just have to keep building on my confidence. I just have to keep working on inner confidence. I have the ability to make plays.”
As for the celebration, a smiling Loewen said: “It was not maybe the best . . . I was excited. I was pumped about it.”
Loewen’s goal put the cap on what was a solid performance by the home side. The Chiefs are without three of their best players — defenceman Jason Fram and forwards Wyatt Johnson and Kailer Yamamoto — and perhaps it is starting to show. They didn’t create much in the way of offence, didn’t show a whole lot of energy, weren’t able to get traffic to Ingram’s doorstep and their power play, well, it finished 0-for-6.
But then, as Loewen said, “Our penalty killing was exceptional and the goalie . . . Ingram has been exceptional this season for us. He’s on fire. He’s got a lot of confidence and he’s a leader that way. He’s really good at slowing the game down. He’s a great goalie.”
The Blazers got the scoring started on a power play at 18:01 of the first period when a Rehill point shot landed near centre Matt Needham, who beat Verhelst with a nifty Savardian spin-a-rama for his 21st goal this season.
“That was really important,” Hay said of the game’s first goal. “Both teams were really checking. There wasn’t much being accomplished. It was like a chess match in the first period. Matt’s goal gave us a little bit of room to breathe.”
The score moved to 2-0 just 48 seconds into the second period when Spokane defenceman Matt Sozanski blocked a shot by Blazers defenceman Ondrej Vala, only to have the rebound go right to winger Jake Kryski in the slot. Kryski whipped his 12th goal of the season past Verhelst.
Blazers winger Matt Revel added more insurance at 18:18 of the second when he finished off a 2-on-1 with defenceman Dawson Davidson by rifling a shot past Verhelst.
It was about then that the Chiefs began thinking about the long bus ride to Prince George where they will hook up with the Cougars for a Friday-Saturday doubleheader.
The Blazers got a second power-play score, this one at 6:49 of the third period when winger Quinn Benjafield took a neat pass from Kryski and scored his ninth goal after Spokane turned over the puck in the neutral zone.
The Blazers lost 4-3 to visiting Seattle on Sunday when the Thunderbirds scored with 2:02 left in the third period. The feeling last night was that this was a much better Kamloops effort.
“The urgency (was there), for sure,” said Ingram, who is sporting something on his face that he called his “pre-playoff” beard. “It’s getting down to crunch time. It’s time to stop messing around and get down to business. It’s a job now and it’s time to buckle down.”
This was an important victory, too, as the Blazers and Chiefs went into the game tied for the 10-team Western Conference’s two wild-card playoff spots.
When the game ended, the Blazers (30-25-9) were in possession of the first spot, with the Chiefs (29-25-9) two points behind. Spokane remains one point behind the third-place Portland Winterhawks in the U.S. Division, while the Blazers are five points in back of the third-place Prince George Cougars in the B.C. Division.
The Tri-City Americans are four points behind Spokane, while the Vancouver Giants, 2-1 losers to the host Prince George Cougars last night, have been eliminated. The Giants find themselves 13 points behind Spokane but have only six games remaining.
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 3,868. . . . The Blazers were 2-for-5 on the power play. . . . Verheslt stopped 21 shots. . . . The Blazers scratched G Cole Kehler, F Erik Miller, F Spencer Bast and D Conner McDonald. . . . The Chiefs scratched D Jason Fram, F Kailer Yamamoto, F Wyatt Johnson and F Jacob Cardiff, all of whom are injured. . . . Spokane D Evan Fiala didn’t return after going awkwardly into the boards on a hit from Quinney at 7:42 of the second period. . . . The Blazers and Chiefs hadn’t met since Nov. 3. Kamloops now leads the season series 3-0-0 — the Chiefs are 0-2-1. They meet for the last time on Wednesday in Spokane. . . . The Blazers are at home again Friday, this time against the Kelowna Rockets. Game time is 7 p.m. Kamloops has only three home games remaining in the regular season.
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