By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
Dave Hunchak expects the Kamloops Blazers to begin tonight’s WHL game with guns blazing.
After all, the Blazers have won four of their last five games and have climbed out of the 10-team Western Conference’s cellar and into seventh place.
“We’ve put a lot of miles on already,” said Hunchak, who is the Moose Jaw Warriors’ head coach and assistant director of hockey operations, on Monday. “Teams have been trying to come after us every game we’ve opened up.
“I expect Kamloops to come at us hard and physical. And I expect us to be able to push back.”
The Warriors began this trip in Calgary on Dec. 28, with a 6-1 victory over the Hitmen. Moose Jaw then beat the Vancouver Giants 6-3 on Thursday and the Chilliwack Bruins 4-2 on Friday. The run ended Sunday with a 5-2 loss to the Cougars in Prince George.
Still, the success has helped propel the Warriors (23-14-2) into fifth place in the 12-team Eastern Conference, just two points behind the Medicine Hat Tigers and four in arrears of the Red Deer Rebels.
“We’ve been able to find ways to win games,” Hunchak said. “It hasn’t been pretty at times . . . we’ll take the two points.”
The Blazers, meanwhile, are coming off two straight victories. They beat the Seattle Thunderbirds 3-2 in Kent, Wash., on Saturday night, then returned home and manhandled the Kelowna Rockets 5-1 on Sunday.
That improved their record to 19-19-2 and has them seventh, a point behind Vancouver and two in back of Kelowna.
“I expect (the Blazers) to be fast,” Hunchak said. “I expect them to be physical. I expect them to play with a lot of confidence after the little stretch they’re on here right now, especially at home.”
Both teams will be missing players, what with the World Junior Championship in Buffalo and the U-17 World Hockey Challenge in Winnipeg in the process of wrapping up.
The Warriors spent part of last evening watching teammate Quinton Howden and Team Canada defeated the United States 4-1 in a semifinal game in Buffalo. You can bet the Warriors try to get some motivation from the fact that Howden’s second goal of the tournament stood up as the winner.
Moose Jaw also is without forward Antonin Honesjek, who is in Buffalo with the Czech Republic and will play in a relegation-round game against Slovakia today. Forward Dalibor Bortnak of the Blazers is on the Slovakian roster.
The relegation games are to be played even though it already has been decided that Germany, including Blazers winger Bernhard Keil, and Norway will be relegated. Those two teams are to play each other today.
The Warriors also are missing forward Brayden Cuthbert and defenceman Morgan Rielly, both of whom are with Team Western in Winnipeg. Rielly, from Vancouver, was the second overall pick in the 2009 bantam draft.
Moose Jaw has added three players as it attempts to fill those spots. Forward Brandon Potomak of Kelowna and defenceman Spencer Morse of Calgary were second-round selections in the 2009 WHL draft, while defenceman Matthew Franczyk of Winnipeg, 17, has joined them from the MJHL’s Winnipeg South Blues after starting this season with the Swift Current Broncos.
Hunchak said that two of the three newcomers likely will play tonight.
Also missing from the Blazers’ lineup will be forward Logan McVeigh and defenceman Brady Gaudet. They also are with Team Western.
The Blazers also will be without defenceman Josh Caron (collarbone) and winger JC Lipon (ankle). The Blazers now say that Caron, who hasn’t played since Sept. 25, will be out for another two weeks. Lipon suffered an ankle injury on Sunday and is believed to be day-to-day.
With Lipon injured, the Blazers have brought back forward Aspen Sterzer, 16, from the Calgary-based midget AAA EDGE academy. He will play tonight, then join his regular team at a tournament in Kelowna. Sterzer, from Canoe Flats, is pointless in seven earlier games with the Blazers.
Bortnak, Keil, McVeigh and Gaudet are expected to rejoin the Blazers in time for weekend games. The Blazers are at home to the Chilliwack Bruins on Friday and then play in Kelowna on Saturday.
JUST NOTES: Game time at Interior Savings Centre is 7 p.m. . . . Thomas Heemskerk (20-12-2, 2.94, .907) starts in goal for Moose Jaw. . . . The Blazers will go with Jeff Bosch, who was acquired from the Warriors earlier in the season. Bosch (15-8-1, 3.23, .903) made 88 regular-season appearances with the Warriors. . . . The Cougars headed for Kamloops right after Sunday’s game in Prince George, arriving here Monday, around 12:30 a.m. . . . This will be the Blazers’ sixth game in nine days since the end of the Christmas break. . . . The Warriors will play Thursday in Kelowna and Friday against the Kootenay Ice in Cranbrook before returning home. . . . Moose Jaw’s Joey Kornelsen, a 17-year-old forward from Abbotsford, has a goal in each of the four games on this trip, giving him six on the season. . . . F Dylan Hood, a 20-year-old from Osoyoos, has eight points, including six goals, over his last six games. Hood has 48 points, including 20 goals, in 38 games this season.
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