By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
How tightly packed are the teams in the bottom half of the WHL’s 10-team Western Conference?
Well, let us consider the Kamloops Blazers and Everett Silvertips, who will clash tonight at Interior Savings Centre.
When players from those teams woke up Friday morning, the Blazers were tied for eighth and the Silvertips were in last place.
When they arose Monday, the Blazers (22-28-3) were alone in eighth, but now were two points behind the Silvertips (21-23-7), who went 3-for-3 on the weekend and vaulted into sole possession of seventh place.
The Silvertips come to Kamloops riding a three-game winning streak for the first time since Nov. 19-21.
You can bet that Everett head coach Craig Hartsburg was echoing the thoughts of more than one Western Conference head coach when, prior to last weekend, he told Nick Patterson of the Everett Herald: “Every game for us is important now. We’ve been saying that we have to squeeze some points out against the good teams we’ve played recently. But now we’re in a situation where points are even more important because of the teams we’re playing.”
The Blazers are no different.
With the Western Conference pretty much split in half, into haves and have nots, Kamloops, which has 47 points, is in a battle for one of three playoff spots with Everett (49), the Prince George Cougars (51), Chilliwack Bruins (46) and Seattle Thunderbirds (45).
The Blazers have 19 games remaining, with only seven of them against teams in this group. It is important, then, that the Blazers beat the teams they have to beat.
The Blazers, who have won just three times in their last 13 outings, are coming off a 5-1 victory in Chilliwack on Friday that halted a five-game losing skid.
Hoping to build on that victory, they expect to get two key forwards back from injury tonight.
Jordan DePape (leg), who has missed eight games, and Dalibor Bortnak (concussion), who has sat out five, are scheduled to return against the Silvertips.
However, team captain Chase Schaber (leg), who has missed eight games and 10 of 12, isn’t expected to play before next week. That means he also will miss this weekend’s home-and-home series with Chilliwack, but might get back in Feb. 9 against visiting Seattle.
The Blazers also will be without backup goaltender Cam Lanigan, who is out week-to-week after suffering a concussion in Monday’s practice.
Jeff Bosch will make his sixth straight start tonight, and his 24th in the team’s last 27 games.
Taran Kozun, 16, will back up Bosch. Kozun has joined the Blazers from the midget AAA Prince Albert Mintos. Kozun, who is from Nipawin, Sask., is 15-3-2, with a 2.16 GAA and .919 save percentage.
Meanwhile, Everett is missing two key forwards.
Ryan Harrison, who was acquired from the Medicine Hat Tigers on Jan. 10, scored the go-ahead goal in a 2-1 victory over host Seattle on Sunday, and later was ejected with a checking-from-behind major. He will serve a one-game WHL-issued suspension tonight.
Landon Ferraro, meanwhile, may not play again this season after undergoing hernia surgery Friday in Detroit. He has returned to Everett but is looking at a four-to-eight week recovery period.
Ferraro, the Silvertips’ captain, was a second-round selection by Detroit in the 2009 NHL draft and has signed an NHL contract.
With Ferraro out, highly touted defenceman Ryan Murray, who almost certainly will be an early pick in the NHL’s 2012 draft, is serving as captain.
JUST NOTES: Game time is 7 p.m. . . . Everett’s Kent Simpson is the WHL’s nominee as CHL goaltender of the week. He was 3-1-0 last week, with a 1.25 GAA and a .965 save percentage. . . . The Blazers will go home-and-home with the Chilliwack Bruins on the weekend. The Bruins, who meet the Rockets tonight in Kelowna, have lost five in a row, including a 5-1 loss to the visiting Blazers on Saturday. They’ll play here Friday and in Chilliwack the following night. . . . Tonight’s game will be televised by Shaw. It also is Minor Hockey Night, with more than 700 young players expected to attend.
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