By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The dogfight that is the chase for playoff spots in the WHL’s Western Conference continues tonight at Interior Savings Centre with the Chilliwack Bruins going against the Kamloops Blazers.
The Blazers (19-20-2) go into the game in seventh place in the 10-team conference in which seven teams are within six points of each other. The Bruins (17-17-3) are ninth, three points behind Kamloops. The Bruins hold four games in hand.
The Bruins also are 2-0 against the Blazers this season, having won 5-2 here and 6-1 there, but the teams haven’t met since Oct. 2.
Both teams have been making do with thin rosters, what with injuries and players away at tournaments, but there should be at least some relief today.
The Blazers expect to have forwards Dalibor Bortnak (Slovakia) and Bernhard Keil (Germany) back from the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, while defenceman Brady Gaudet and forward Logan McVeigh return after playing for Team Western at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge in Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie.
However, the Blazers are expected to again be without defenceman Josh Caron (collarbone) and forward JC Lipon (ankle), while captain Chase Schaber left their last game, a 4-2 loss to the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors, six minutes into the third period with a leg injury.
The Blazers are continuing with their policy of not allowing anyone in the organization to communicate with The Daily News, a situation into its 16th day.
Meanwhile, Marc Habscheid, the former Blazers head coach who now is the Bruins’ general manager and head coach, is looking forward to having a few more bodies on his roster. He said the Bruins were missing nine players when they dropped a 6-2 decision to the visiting Vancouver Giants on Sunday.
“Even with nine guys out, I didn’t like our compete,” he said, using hockey’s new ‘hot’ word. “No matter what, you still have to play the games and you still have to complete. I didn’t like our compete.
“You do what you do but the one thing that has to be a staple is the compete . . . the will to win and not accepting to lose.”
The Bruins expect to have forwards Roman Horak and Robin Soudek back from the Czech Republic team that played in Buffalo, while forwards Steven Hodges and Brandon Magee both were with Team Pacific at the WHC.
There is some question about Horak, however. He was scratched from the Czech’s last game at the WJC and Habscheid hadn’t been able to ascertain why that happened. He was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Horak, who has 38 points in 30 games and rides shotgun with 24-goal man Ryan Howse.
And if Horak and Soudek are back and healthy, they will play tonight, as will Hodges and Magee.
Veteran defenceman Brandon Manning (leg) remains day-to-day, while forward Mike Forsyth (hand) is available. Habscheid said that forwards Brendan Persley (foot), Curt Gogol (shoulder) and Jesse Pauls (leg) remain sidelined.
Habscheid said the 16-year-old Magee, a 5-foot-7, 160-pounder from Edmonton, was one of the young players who picked up his play before Christmas.
Magee, Habscheid said, “has stepped up and played some important minutes for us.”
Magee, who has 13 points in 31 games, should be coming back on a high, too. It was his overtime goal that gave Team Pacific, including equipment manager Troy Clifford of Kamloops, a 5-4 victory over Quebec in the bronze-medal game at the WHC on Tuesday.
Habscheid, who won gold with Team Canada at the 1982 WJC, said the returning players, in particular Horak and Soudek, will get some down time in the days to come.
“I’ve never given them time off,” Habscheid said, referring to players returning from the WJC. “I will give them some practices off. They’re young. We’ll find time to give them a day off practice here or there.”
As for having them miss games, Habscheid said, “That’s not really fair to the organization.”
Certainly not with the race for playoff spots this heated.
There is some separation in the conference, with three teams -- the Portland Winterhawks, Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans -- starting to pull away. The Americans, with the conference’s third-best record, now are five points ahead of the Prince George Cougars, who lead the B.C. Division.
But seven of the teams are packed together like sardines in a tin, and points are as important now as they will be in March.
JUST NOTES: Game time is 7 p.m. . . . Kamloops native Lucas Gore (15-11-3, 3.17, .907) is to start in goal for the Bruins, with Jeff Bosch (15-9-1, 3.23, .903) expected to get the call for the Blazers. Bosch has started the team’s last five games and 12 of its last 13. . . . The Blazers are 4-1 against conference rivals since the Christmas break. . . . Chilliwack and Kamloops each is 4-6-0 in its last 10 games. . . . The Blazers will play the Rockets in Kelowna on Saturday. That will be the third meeting between those teams in 10 days, with each having won on home ice.