By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The Kamloops Blazers are going to get a taste of the best and the worst the WHL’s Eastern Conference has to offer this weekend.
For starters, the Blazers will face the high-flying Saskatoon Blades tonight at Interior Savings Centre.
The Blades come in with a 20-6-1 record. They lead the Eastern Conference by one point, over the Kootenay Ice, and are just four points behind the Portland Winterhawks, who have the WHL’s best record.
Saskatoon, 8-1-1 in its last 10 outings, also has won three straight games, including a 2-1 victory over the Giants in Vancouver on Tuesday and a 7-3 triumph over the Bruins in Chilliwack on Wednesday.
At the other end of the WHL’s spectrum are the Calgary Hitmen, who visit Interior Savings Centre on Saturday. They are the WHL’s defending champions, but have fallen on hard times — really hard times — this season.
One year ago, the Hitmen were on their way to a WHL-leading 117-point regular season. They went into last night at 6-20-1. They are the first team to 20 losses this season and already are 11 points out of a playoff spot.
Calgary opened this road trip by falling 4-3 to the Prince George Cougars on Wednesday. Tonight, the Hitmen, who have lost four in a row, are in Vancouver to play the Giants. After Saturday, Calgary is to head home for a Wednesday game against the Edmonton Oil Kings.
"I don't sleep very well even when we're winning,'' Kelly Kisio, Calgary’s general manager, told columnist George Johnson of the Calgary Herald the other day. "So now, with what's been happening this season . . .
"Ask my wife, I'm spending a lot of nights on the couch watching TV because I can't drift off. I'll watch anything. Gawd, there's a lot of rotten stuff on late-night TV these days. People selling frying pans and all sorts of things.
"I'm actually kind of surprised I haven't called up and bought anything yet.''
If he was able to buy a scorer, you can’t bet Kisio would have pulled out his credit card. The Hitmen have scored 69 goals in 27 games and only the Everett Silvertips (68 in 27) have been worse on offence.
And then you have the Blazers who, after winning three in a row in Alberta (Oct. 20-23), have gone 6-7-0, with two of the victories coming via the shootout and another in overtime.
That leaves them at 13-13-1 which, going into Friday’s games, had them tied for eighth place in the 10-team Western Conference. However, nine of the 10 teams are within six points of each other.
The Blazers didn’t gain any ground in November, as they went 5-6-0 despite getting big-time production from the line of Chase Schaber between Brendan Ranford and Jordan DePape.
Ranford, who leads the WHL with 24 goals, put up 22 points in 10 games — he missed one game with a suspension. Included in Ranford’s November were six three-point outings.
Schaber, who sat out a three-game suspension, picked up 14 points in eight games and takes an 11-game point streak into tonight’s game. That is the longest active streak in the league today.
DePape, who is showing all the signs of being an offensively streaky player, earned 16 points in the month’s 11 games, with 14 of those points coming in five games.
That line scored 21 of the Blazers’ 38 goals in November, so you know where the Blades and Hitmen will be putting their defensive focus this weekend.
JUST NOTES: The puck drops for both games at 7 p.m. . . . Kamloops D Josh Caron, who hasn’t played since breaking his collarbone on Sept. 25, won’t play this weekend. He may return Dec. 10 against the visiting Swift Current Broncos. . . . G Jeff Bosch (9-4-0, 3.59, .892) is expected to start in goal for the Blazers tonight. . . . Kamloops F JC Lipon is eligible to return tonight after serving a four-game WHL-issued suspension for his part in an incident in Portland on Nov. 20. . . . The Blazers have given up one shorthanded goal in each of their last three games. . . . Saskatoon F Lukas Sutter has three goals in four games since Saskatoon StarPhoenix sports writer Cory Wolfe did a story on what was then a 23-game drought. . . . The Blades have been without F Marek Viedensky, who is one of their top forwards. The 20-year-old, who has missed six games with a concussion, has 31 points, including 13 goals, in 21 games. Whether he plays tonight will be a game-time decision.
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