By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
When the Kamloops Blazers headed into the WHL’s Central Division a week ago, their defensive brigade had more holes in it than a pair of old work socks.
Austin Madaisky and Brandon Underwood, who had evolved into their shutdown defensive pairing, both were gone with long-term injuries.
And while they were in sole possession of the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot, they only had a one-point lead on the Chilliwack Bruins and were six back of the Prince George Cougars.
Tonight, as the Blazers (27-31-4) prepare to face the Tigers (38-17-6) in Medicine Hat, they still are eighth, but now they are five points ahead of Chilliwack and the Seattle Thunderbirds. Not only that — Kamloops is just one point in arrears of the seventh-place Cougars.
That’s what happens when you go on the road and earn five of a possible six points in three games.
The Blazers won in Edmonton, beating the Oil Kings 4-3 in overtime, then lost 4-3 in OT to the Rebels in Red Deer. And, on Wednesday night, the Blazers surrendered 3-0 and 4-1 leads before beating the Lethbridge Hurricanes 5-4 in OT.
Kamloops played in Lethbridge without another veteran defenceman, Josh Caron having been hit with a three-game suspension for a hit from behind on Red Deer forward Josh Cowen, who suffered a broken hand and will miss at least three weeks.
So, you’re wondering, what’s been going on?
“Corey Fienhage has really stepped up his game,” offered assistant coach Scott Ferguson from Medicine Hat on Thursday. “He’s been playing really well.”
Fienhage, a 20-year-old in his first WHL season, was plus-3 in Lethbridge. He is plus-7 in nine February games, after going into the month at minus-15.
Fienhage has been partnered a lot with Brady Gaudet, 16, who is deep into his freshman season. Gaudet was the 10th overall selection in the WHL’s 2010 bantam draft.
“Gaudet has really benefited from the icetime,” Ferguson said. “He’s playing beyond his years right now.”
Gaudet, from Redvers, Sask., had a Gordie Howe hat trick in Lethbridge, scoring his fourth goal, picking up his sixth assist, and getting into his third scrap of the season.
Ferguson also pointed to veteran Bronson Maschmeyer, 19, as a guy “who has always been back there for us.”
“Those three guys,” Ferguson stated, “have really stepped up their games, and that isn’t taking anything away from (Tyler) Hansen and Caron. All of them have really stepped up their games.”
Ferguson played three seasons with the Blazers before going on to a pro career that included 218 NHL games. He remembers being forced to play extra minutes.
“There were times when I had to play every other shift,” Ferguson recalled. “I didn’t mind it. When you’re doing it, you keep it simple. You know you’re going to get out there and you try to limit your mistakes. But you’re not worried about making mistakes because you know you have to play.
“It was just a matter of knowing you’re going to get back out there, so keep it simple and keep your shifts short. You tend to get into a game a little bit quicker that way. Sometimes it can be beneficial.”
And that, he thinks, is pretty much what is happening with the Blazers right now.
That, along with forwards who have become more conscious of their defensive play and goaltender Jeff Bosch, who has been more than solid. Bosch is expected to make his 15th straight start tonight.
“I really believe defence is a five-man unit,” he said. “As a team we’re really focused on the defensive side of it to help out the back end. The forwards are doing a good job of coming back, and Bosch has been playing really well.
“That’s why I love hockey. It’s a team game . . . it’s all six guys on the ice.”
And it’s also special teams.
The Blazers’ much-maligned penalty killers, who have had the WHL’s worst success rate through most of the season, haven’t been torched once on this road trip. They are 16-for-16, the second time this season they have been perfect for three games in a row. (Coincidentally, the first time they had this success also was in the Central Division, in October.)
Of course, they’ll need all they help they can get again tonight as they play the Tigers and again Saturday when this swing wraps up in Cranbrook against the Kootenay Ice (39-18-4). The Ice and Tigers are tied for third in the Eastern Conference.
The suspended Caron won’t be available for either game, which means right-winger Jordan DePape will be back on defence. He spent most of Wednesday’s game there, moving up only on the power play and in OT, when he scored the winning goal.
DePape, who is from Winnipeg, played some on the back end during his minor hockey days. And when the Blazers ran into penalty problems during an exhibition game, they moved him back.
“It has been a good challenge for him,” Ferguson said. “He’s a smart player. I think he has learned to appreciate the defensive responsibilities.
“He looks fairly strong. He skates backwards well, he reads the ice well, he’s not shy to go back for pucks and take a hit to make a play. He’s a big, physical guy who skates well and sees the ice well.
“He’s done a good job.”
JUST NOTES: The Blazers continue to be without F Chase Schaber (leg), who now has missed 17 games in a row and 19 of the last 21. . . . The Tigers are showing four players as being out with concussions — D Jace Coyle, D Matt Konan, D Scott Ramsay and F Sam Dezman — while D Patrick Parkkonen (shoulder) also is out. . . . Coyle and Konan are day-to-day, Dezman is indefinite, and Parkkonen and Ramsay will be out another week. . . . The Blazers are at home Wednesday when the Kelowna Rockets are scheduled to pay a visit. . . . F Cole Ully, who made his WHL debut with the Blazers on Wednesday, has returned to the midget AAA Calgary Flames. A post-game scoring change Wednesday gave him his first point, an assist on the Blazers’ fourth goal.
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