By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
When you don’t make the playoffs, you have some proving to do the following season.
Well, the Kamloops Blazers took a giant step towards proving they belong in the WHL elite on Saturday when they edged host Medicine Hat, 2-1, snapping the Tigers’ six-game winning streak.
The Blazers ended their only trek into Alberta this season at 2-1-0. They lost 4-2 to the Red Deer Rebels on Wednesday and beat the Lethbridge Hurricanes 7-4 on Friday.
The Blazers (9-3-0) arrived home Sunday morning leading the B.C. Division; they also are just two points behind the Western Conference-leading Tri-City Americans (10-4-0), who scored their second straight 1-0 victory over the Cougars in Prince George on Saturday.
The Blazers and Spokane Chiefs (7-2-1) boast the WHL’s best winning percentage, at .750.
Not since 2003-04 have the Blazers earned 18 points from their first 12 games. That season, they opened 8-2-1-1, with the latter ‘1’ being a tie. In 2001-02, they got off to a 9-2-1 start, good for 19 points.
In 1994-95, the Blazers won 10 of their first 12 games, en route to winning 17 of their first 19 outings.
“Lately,” offered Kamloops head coach Guy Charron, “when we’ve lost, it seems we’ve done it to ourselves, and that was the case in Red Deer.”
The Blazers were leading 2-1 in Red Deer when a turnover led to a Rebels goal off a breakaway.
“Then we scored in our own net . . . that was the winning goal,” Charron said.
The key to the game in Lethbridge, in which the Blazers watched a 3-1 lead turn into a 4-3 deficit before they scored the last four goals, was “we found a way to get back and win the game,” Charron said, while admitting that was the kind of the game this team may well have lost last season.
As for Saturday night’s game, Charron said, “it was our best of the three as far as playing 60 minutes of hockey.”
Kamloops right-winger J.T. Barnett broke a 1-1 tie at 2:57 of the third period, on a wraparound, and goaltender Cam Lanigan shut the door the rest of the way. Lanigan stopped 28 shots, 11 of them in that final period.
“It is nice,” Lanigan, who played two-plus seasons with the Edmonton Oil Kings before being dealt to the Blazers a year ago, told Darren Steinke of the Medicine Hat News. “Coming in, this rink was my biggest nemesis.
“I don’t know if I have ever finished one game in this (building), but the feeling was awesome when we finally pulled out the victory.”
Lanigan was quick to credit his teammates.
“I thought the guys played probably their best game I’ve seen them play in front of me just for eliminating chances and stuff like that,” he said. “Our defencemen were awesome.”
The Tigers took a 1-0 lead when right-winger Emerson Etem scored his WHL-leading 14th goal, via the PP, at 14:40 of the first period.
The Blazers pulled even at 18:27 of the second period as winger J.C. Lipon took a long pass from Chase Schaber and beat goaltender Tyler Bunz, who made 19 saves, with a low shot. That was the Blazers’ fifth shorthanded goal this season; they scored four all of last season.
That set the stage for Barnett to notch the winner, his fourth goal of the season and third on the Alberta swing.
The Tigers (9-4-0) came out of the weekend tied tied for first place in the Eastern Conference with the Regina Pats, Edmonton Oil Kings and Kootenay Ice.
The Blazers don’t play again until Friday when the Kelowna Rockets visit Interior Savings Centre. The Blazers beat the visiting Rockets 3-2 on Oct. 16.
The Rockets, who lost 5-2 to the Giants in Vancouver last night, are 4-7-1 and in seventh place in the Western Conference, nine points in arrears of the second-place Blazers.
Kelowna started the season with three victories, so is 1-7-1 since then.
JUST NOTES: Lipon has six goals in 12 games this season. In his previous two seasons, he totalled six goals in 118 games. . . . The Tigers had erased a 4-1 deficit to beat the host Blazers 5-4 on Thanksgiving Day. That was the second game of the Tigers’ six-game winning streak. . . . The Blazers scratched F Chase Souto (hand), F Jordan DePape (shoulder), F Logan McVeigh and D Brady Gaudet. . . . Kamloops C Colin Smith was awarded an assist after Friday’s game in Lethbridge. That gave him two goals and two helpers, the second four-point game of the season and of his career. He had a goal and three assists in an 8-2 victory over the visiting Victoria Royals on Oct. 2. . . . G Taran Kozun, who was re-assigned by the Blazers last week, made his SJHL debut with the Nipawin Hawks on Saturday. He stopped 35 of 40 shots in a 6-3 loss to the host Kindersley Klippers. Kozun’s brother, Tad, also plays for the Hawks.
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