When you start a season the way the Kamloops Blazers have, every game is a challenge.
Still, the local WHL team is facing perhaps its greatest challenge to this point in the season as it entertains the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Friday night at the Sandman Centre.
Understand that these aren’t the Hurricanes of the last few seasons. No, this bunch isn’t showing signs of being anything like the team that hasn’t been in a playoff game since the spring of 2006. That’s right . . . Lethbridge has missed the playoffs for six straight seasons.
That was then, though. This is now, and the Hurricanes are riding an eight-game winning streak. They are 10-2-0 and their .833 winning percentage is the best in the 22-team league.
They have played two games in the B.C. Division this week, having beaten the Victoria Royals 4-3 in OT on Tuesday and the Vancouver Giants 5-2 on Wednesday.
“I thought we played better (Wednesday) night than we did on Tuesday,” Lethbridge general manager Peter Anholt said as the team checked into a Kelowna hotel on Thursday afternoon. The Hurricanes will meet the Rockets there on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Blazers are 4-8-0 and trying to make their way out of the 10-team Western Conference’s cellar. After starting the season 0-6-0, they have won three of four and four of six. They may have played their most-complete game of the season Wednesday when they dismantled the visiting Prince George Cougars, 6-1.
“We’re on a roll and they’re on a roll,” Kamloops head coach Don Hay said of the Hurricanes, “so it should be a good contest. They’re playing really well right now. To go into Victoria and Vancouver back-to-back and come up with wins . . . obviously they’re playing with a lot of confidence.
“I like the way we’re playing. We just have to go out there and play hard and compete.”
Hay said he doesn’t know a lot about Lethbridge, but “obviously they’re a team that really believes in (new head coach
Brent Kisio) and they have players who are enjoying the other side of life right now. They’re playing very well.”
Kamloops goaltender Connor Ingram, who was sharp in making 37 saves against the Cougars, is expected to start again tonight, and he’s eager to face the Hurricanes.
“It’s exciting,” the 18-year-old sophomore from Imperial, Sask., said. “When we play well, we can compete with all those teams. We’ve knocked off Prince George. We’ve knocked off Red Deer. We’ve knocked off Victoria. We’ve shown we can play with the good teams. I’m excited for it, for sure.”
Ingram and his teammates are well aware that the game’s outcome may depend on their start. On Wednesday, Ingram stopped 14 first-period shots as his teammates built a 3-0 lead.
“It’s nice to get rolling a little bit and not give up those big first-period goals. It helps everybody get going,” Ingram said. “I think the better they play, the better I play; the better I play, the better they play.”
Sophomore F Jermaine Loewen of the Blazers scored his first WHL goal on Wednesday, something that was cause for great celebration. He is a fan-favourite and is hugely popular in the team’s dressing room.
After the game, his 48th with the Blazers over two seasons, he couldn’t wait to finish with his media obligations so that he could call his parents, Tara and Stan, in Arborg, Man., never mind the two-hour time difference.
“My mom and dad stay up late,” Jermaine said. “They watch the games, so it’s a pretty good feeling.”
It was a pretty good feeling in Arborg too.
“It was pretty celebratory at our house,” Stan said, noting that they had been in Kamloops for the weekend. “We just left Kamloops on Tuesday so too bad we couldn’t be there. But we’ll take it.”
JUST NOTES: Game time Friday night is 7 o’clock. . . . The Blazers will again be without D Nolan Kneen who is at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge that opens today in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John. . . . The Hurricanes have three players at the WHC — F Jordy Bellerive, F Brett Davis and D Nick Watson. . . . As expected, the Blazers’ second goal in Wednesday’s game has been changed from F Jesse Zaharichuk to F Matthew Campese. The assists go to Zaharichuk and D Ondrej Vala, with D Ryan Rehill no longer in the equation. . . . That goal was Campese’s first in 29 games with the Blazers. He had one assist in 21 games after coming over from the Victoria Royals last season. . . . After Friday’s game, the Blazers are off until Tuesday when they entertain the Spokane Chiefs. The Blazers are in a stretch where they will play 10 of 12 games at home between Oct. 21 and Nov. 21. . . . For the second straight weekend, the Blazers won’t play Saturday or Sunday. That won’t happen again through the remainder of the season.
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 former Blazers F Ryan Huska.