Sunday, October 30, 2011

Blazers are kings of WHL's hill

Logan McVeigh (12) of the Kamloops Blazers tries to control a bouncing
puck while Kelowna Rockets defenceman Cole Martin keeps close tabs
on his opponent during WHL action in Kelowna on Saturday night.

(Photo by Gary Nylander/The Daily Courier)
By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
As October takes its final breaths before turning into November, the Kamloops Blazers, who didn’t even make the WHL playoffs last season, boast the league’s top winning percentage.
Yes, indeed . . . the Blazers are 14 games (19.4 per cent) into their 72-game season and they are the kings of the WHL’s hill, thanks to their .786 winning percentage. Kamloops is tied with the Tri-City Americans (11-5-0, .688) atop the Western Conference and leads the B.C. Division by three points over the Victoria Royals (9-7-1, .559). Only the defending-champion Kootenay Ice (11-3-2), with 24, have more points than the Blazers (11-3-0).
Although 14 of the WHL’s 22 teams have winning percentages above .500 — it’s the WHL’s new math — only the Blazers, Ice (.750) and Spokane Chiefs (8-3-1, .708) are above .700.
The Blazers won their fourth straight game Saturday, going into Kelowna and beating the Rockets 4-3, which gave Kamloops a weekend sweep over the guys from the Little Apple. Kamloops had won 5-2 at home on Friday, and now is 3-0-0 against the Rockets this season.
On Saturday, the Blazers had to come back from a 2-0 second-period deficit in this one and they did just that, scoring four straight goals.
“The thing behind our team right now is that we are finding ways to win,” Blazers head coach Guy Charron said. “It’s different than what it was in the past — we would find ways to lose.”
Charron said the key on Saturday was that “we stuck by the plan.”
“Our message,” he continued, “was basically, ‘Guys, we’re playing well. Just keep pushing their defence. . . . It may not be a short-term success, but long term they will get tired.’ ”
The Rockets scratched sophomore Myles Bell (undisclosed) prior to the game, leaving them with five defencemen.
After defenceman Madison Bowey and centre Shane McColgan gave the Rockets that 2-0 lead, forward Ryan Hanes, with his first goal in 28 games, got the visitors on the board at 6:35, with Dylan Willick equalizing at 15:34.
Willick broke the 2-2 tie at 14:44 of the third period — he scored twice in both weekend games, giving him nine goals, all in his last 10 games.
Kamloops left-winger Brendan Ranford, with his ninth goal, upped the Kamloops lead to 4-2 at 18:26 of the third period, before Rockets defenceman Damon Severson completed the scoring at 19:35.
“Because we stayed with the plan,” Charron said, “we were able to score two late goals.”
Kamloops goaltender Cam Lanigan stopped 20 shots, 11 fewer than Kelowna’s Adam Brown.
Charron really liked what he saw from his club as it won in a decidedly unfriendly environment and in front of 6,063 fans.
“To their credit,” Charron said of his charges, “they worked their buns off.”
He also said it was great to see the 19-year-old Hanes, the only Kamloops native on the roster, finally cash in a scoring chance.
“He was right in the crease, battling away for rebounds,” Charron said. “He got a loose puck and found a way to score. It’s good for him. He’s a trouper — totally devoted to the team.”
The Rockets (5-9-1-0) now are seventh in the conference, 11 points behind the Blazers.
“I saw us not quit, which was good,” Rockets head coach Ryan Huska told the Kelowna Daily Courier. “But we’re not going to use (injuries) as an excuse. We have to continue to push and fight to improve. If we keep working and not backing off from what we’re asking the players to do, things will change for us, and that’s what we have to believe in.”
JUST NOTES: The Blazers scratched F Matt Needham, F Chase Souto, D Landon Cross and F Jordan DePape (shoulder). . . . Speaking of Needham, Charron said: “His game hasn’t been up to where it can be.” . . . The Rockets were without five injured players. . . . The Blazers are at home Wednesday to the Portland Winterhawks, who are nearing the end of a 17-day, nine-game jaunt. They lost 4-1 to the Ice in Cranbrook on Saturday and arrived in Kamloops late yesterday afternoon. Portland went 2-3-1 in the Central Division. . . . G Liam McLeod of Kamloops stopped 32 shots Sunday to help B.C. to a 5-4 victory over Saskatchewan in the third-place game at the WHL’s U-16 Challenge Cup in Moose Jaw. McLeod, a ninth-round selection of the Blazers in the 2011 bantam draft, was selected as B.C.’s player of the game. The B.C. roster also included D Joe Hicketts, F Ryan Gropp, F Carson Bolduc and F Chad Butcher, all of Kamloops. Alberta beat Manitoba 10-4 in the tournament final.

gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca
     
gdrinnan.blogspot.com
     
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