The Kamloops Blazers gained some space on Wednesday night with an entertaining 5-3 WHL victory over the Red Deer Rebels at the Sandman Centre.
The Blazers (27-22-8), who won their fourth straight game, now are five points ahead of the Tri-City Americans in the race for the 10-team Western Conference’s last playoff spot. Not only that, but the Portland Winterhawks are between the Blazers and the Americans.
Meanwhile, the Rebels (35-20-3), who will be the host team in the 2016 Memorial Cup tournament, have lost four in a row and look a whole lot like a team low in confidence and perhaps even in a state of shock. After all, this wasn’t supposed to happen to a team that looks as good on paper as this one does.
“They are a dangerous team,” Kamloops head coach Don Hay said. “They have some brilliant top-end players. I thought we did a real good job defending them.”
The Rebels scored first in this one, but the Blazers withstood the early push and more than held their own from the middle of the opening period to game’s end.
“There’s always concern,” Hay said of the way this one started. “Being a younger team, facing a team that’s going to be
in the Memorial Cup that we don’t see very much . . . you’re watching the moves they made, the changes they made and the players they acquired.
“We felt our way around a little bit and once we felt, ‘Hey, we can play with these guys,’ we started going.”
Winger Ivan Nikolishin’s 29th goal, on a power play, gave the Rebels a 1-0 lead at 3:26 of the first period. At that point, the visitors had had the game’s only four shots.
But nine minutes later Hay unleashed his fourth line — Nick Chyzowski between Jermaine Loewen and Erik Miller — and in one shift the trio swung the momentum.
“The fourth line gave us some really good shifts,” Hay said. “I thought they were really good early and made a big difference.”
Loewen made a couple of hits, there was a turnover and defenceman Ryan Rehill wired a point shot through traffic and past goaltender Trevor Martin at 13:52.
“We were probably a little nervous to start with and they came at us pretty hard,” Hay said. “They scored on the first power play . . . I thought the goal by Rehill to tie it up was really important for us.
“It gave us a chance to regroup and kind of feel that we deserved to be there. Then we got better and better.”
Rehill scored his second of the game, and ninth of the season, on a power play and on another point shot at 6:16 of the second period, giving his guys a 2-1 lead.
However, the Rebels came right back and tied it when centre Luke Philp scored his first goal with Red Deer. He was acquired from the Kootenay Ice in January but hadn’t played since Nov. 21. He later underwent ankle surgery; this was his fourth game with Red Deer.
Philp then gave Red Deer a 3-2 lead at 18:39, poking a puck over goaltender Connor Ingram from a scramble.
Red Deer, its confidence as frail as tissue paper, gave that one right back as Kamloops centre Gage Quinney took the puck away from Nikolishin in the Rebels’ zone. The puck ended up on winger Quinn Benjafield’s stick and he tied the score with 25.6 seconds left in the period.
Kamloops winger Jake Kryski, who drew an assist on Benjafield’s goal, broke the tie at 3:39 of the third period, banging a rebound that came off a post past Martin, and the Blazers nursed it home, helped by a couple of bad Red Deer penalties, and an empty-net goal from left-winger Collin Shirley at 18:58.
“Rehill was really good,” Hay said. “He played a lot of minutes. I thought all of our guys did a good job of sacrificing, blocking shots . . .”
That was never more in evidence than just prior to Shirley’s goal. The Rebels had Martin on the bench for the extra attacker and were pressing hard, only to be foiled by a pair of Rehill blocks and another by Needham, the latter leading to Shirley’s goal.
Rehill, a 20-year-old in his fifth season, enjoyed the first two-goal game of his WHL career. It came in his 235th regular-season game. It also left him with a career-high in goals, two more than he scored in 68 games last season.
Asked if he had ever scored three goals in a game, he laughed and replied: “Never.”
Not at any level?
He did admit that, yes, perhaps getting a third goal “crossed my mind” during the game. But, he said, “I didn’t try to do anything out of my repertoire, just if I had a chance to shoot and if I had a lane, I was going to take a shot.”
He never really had the opportunity, but that didn’t matter because his team had the victory.
“We knew they were going to come out hard and push,” Rehill said, “but we thought we were the more rested team, they having played in Kelowna the night before. We just wanted to keep our energy up and have some consistent shifts. We didn’t really have a lull in our game and we played pretty consistent throughout our lineup.
“We wanted to focus on us and how we wanted to play tonight.”
And, of course, Ingram, in his 100th regular-season appearance, was, well, Ingram once again. He just seems to get better and better as the season wears on. Last night, he finished with 43 saves and made a lot of tough ones look easy.
“Ingram was really solid for us,” Hay said. “He was steady and gave us that chance to win.”
Ingram had been the first star in each of the previous three games; last night, he was No. 2, behind Rehill.
The Blazers now head out on the road for one of those WHL specialties — three games in less than 48 hours. They will play the Victoria Royals on Friday and Saturday, then head for Vancouver and a game with the Giants on Sunday, 5 p.m. Kamloops then gets four days off before having to go to Everett to play the Silvertips on Feb. 26.
The Blazers won’t play at home again until Feb. 27 when they meet the Giants.
“This was an important win for us,” Hay said. “You go on the road for four games and we knew it was going to be a competitive situation. We had to enjoy getting into the battle and I thought we did that.”
Before this winning streak, the Blazers had suffered through a 2-8-2 stretch. Now they’ve won four in a row. So what has changed?
“We’re more competitive,” Hay said. “There’s more battle in our game and our goaltender has been our best player four games in a row.”
The Rebels, meanwhile, head for Prince George today and a Friday-Saturday doubleheader with the Cougars. Red Deer is in second spot in the Central Division, but now is only four points ahead of the Calgary Hitmen.
The Rebels will be hoping that they can find their game against the Cougars, who are third in the B.C. Division, but now just four points ahead of the Blazers.
All of this means that the Blazers, 48 hours after beating the Rebels, will be pulling for them this weekend.
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 3,416. . . . Kamloops was 2-for-5 on the power play; the Rebels were 1-for-2. . . . Martin, Red Deer’s starting goaltender with Rylan Toth (ankle) on the shelf, made 35 saves. . . . The Blazers swept the two-game season series, having also won here, 3-1, on Oct. 13. . . . The Blazers scratched D Nolan Kneen (knee), who is back practising and may return this weekend, F Spencer Bast and F Matt Campese. . . . The Rebels also were without F Conner Bleackley, D Josh Mahura, F Reese Johnson, F Braden Purtill (all injured), D Ethan Sakowich and F Akash Bains. . . . Brent Sutter, Red Deer’s owner, GM and head coach, became the 15th head coach in WHL history with 400 victories when the Rebels beat the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors 4-3 on Feb. 6. He now is at 401. . . . Next to get there will be former Blazers head coach Marc Habscheid, now the head coach of the Prince Albert Raiders. He is at 396.
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