Ideally, the Kamloops Blazers would have returned from their Christmas break refreshed and ready to take on the world.
Unfortunately for them, that isn’t the way the WHL world works.
They went into the break having won five of six games on an East Division swing. Today, after falling 3-2 to the Victoria Royals on Wednesday night at the Sandman Centre, the Blazers suddenly find themselves on a three-game skid.
The Blazers and Cougars will play here again on Friday, 2 p.m.
To make matters worse the Blazers are without two of their lead horses, with centre Gage Quinney and defenceman Dallas Valentine both listed as being out week-to-week with undisclosed injuries.
On top of that, sophomore defenceman Dawson Davidson also was scratched last night. He, too, has an undisclosed injury.
With Valentine missing a second straight game and Davidson out for the first time, the Blazers had defenceman Luke Zazula, 15, make his debut. From Langley, he was a fourth-round selection in the 2015 bantam draft.
Zazula, who is listed as 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, was in the starting lineup, too, paired with veteran Ryan Rehill, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Zazula also saw time on the first power-play unit.
“I thought he played pretty well,” Kamloops head coach Don Hay said. “He played a lot of minutes for a 15-year-old. It was tough to put him in that situation but I thought he handled it really well.
“The situation we’re in we had to play him that much. We like him at practice. We like his composure. I thought he got better as the game went on.”
Enio Sacilotto, Victoria’s veteran assistant coach who is running the bench with head coach Dave Lowry in Helsinki as head coach of Team Canada at the World Junior Canada, also was impressed with Zazula.
“That guy is going to be a good player,” Sacilotto said. “He’s the next Joe Hicketts in the league. He’s a good player.”
Hicketts, a 5-foot-9 Kamloopsian who plays bigger than that, is in Helsinki with Lowry and Team Canada.
Zazula’s WHL career got off to a whacky start when the Royals scored the game’s first goal at 4:34 of the first period. Zazula moved into the low slot to cover Victoria right-winger Vladimir Bobylev, whose shot went off the young defender and glanced high into the air. No one seemed to know where the puck was until it came down on goaltender Connor Ingram’s back and caromed into the net.
“We got lucky on that first goal,” Sacilotto said, then added that he has in the past told his players that “when you’re phoning home, they don’t ask you how, they just ask, ‘Did you?’ ”
Two minutes later, Rehill turned the puck over in his zone and left-winger Ethan Price found centre Ryan Peckford with a centring pass and, just like that, it was 2-0 for the visitors.
The Blazers got one back before the period ended, with left-winger Jermaine Loewen getting to a loose puck on top of the Victoria crease and slamming it home for his fourth goal this season.
The home boys were fortunate to get out of the first period down 2-1, what with the Royals enjoying a 22-8 edge in shots on goal.
“We didn’t start very well,” Hay said. “The start was really poor. We weren’t assertive. We weren’t on our toes. We didn't win the races or battles.
“We got better in the second and the third was obviously our best period. We fell behind and counted on our goalie to make the difference, and he played very well.”
Ingram finished up with 40 saves and first-star honours.
“It could have been 4-0 after the first period,” Hay said. “To be down 2-1, he gave us a chance to be more competitive. . . we weren’t competitive in the first period. We have to be more competitive and that starts as soon as we hit the ice.”
Kamloops left-winger Jake Kryski tied it at 5:17 of the second with a nifty spin-around backhand from the right side that beat goaltender Coleman Vollrath up high.
The tie didn’t last long, though, as the Blazers broke down defensively and the Royals took advantage. With two defenders tackling Victoria centre Alex Forsberg, left-winger Dante Hannoun found himself alone with the puck to Ingram’s right. No one covered right-winger Matt Phillips on the other side and he took a cross-crease pass from Hannoun for a tap-in that was his 19th goal.
As Hay mentioned, the Blazers did get better as the game went on and had chances to pull even. Perhaps the best opportunity came at 18:57 of the third period when Vollrath, who finished with 36 saves, got his right pad on a shot by left-winger Collin Shirley.
In the end, though, the Blazers watched their record fall to 17-14-4 as they dropped their third straight one-goal decision.
The Royals, meanwhile, improved to 23-12-3. They are 2-0-1 in their last three games and remain second in the Western Conference, a point ahead of the Prince George Cougars.
Sacilotto said he was “very pleased” with his team’s performance.
“We got a good effort form all four lines and all six (defencemen) contributed,” he said. “Vollrath was good. Kamloops poured it on in the third and he was there to make the saves.”
Next up for the Royals is New Year’s Eve in Kamloops.
Asked what was planned for the team, a laughing Sacilotto said: “A big party.”
“No,” he said, adding that a team meal is planned “and then hopefully we can lock them down.”
Yes, he was laughing. It was the laugh of a winning coach.
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 3,797. . . . Victoria was 0-for-2 on the power play; the Blazers were 0-for-3. . . . The Blazers also scratched D Patrik Maier, who scored once for Slovakia in an 8-3 loss to Finland at the World Junior Championship in Helsinki on Wednesday. . . . Quinney and Valentine both are listed as week-to-week, while Davidson continues to be evaluated. They won’t play Friday or Saturday. . . . The Royals now are 4-1-0 against the Blazers this season. . . . This was the final game of 2015 for both teams. For the calendar year, the Royals were 44-23-4, while the Blazers went 32-29-5.
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