By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports EditorIt wasn’t quite Welcome Back, Kotter. But it’ll have to do.
Left-winger Brendan Ranford was welcomed back to the Kamloops lineup on Friday night and lit the fuse early to spark the Blazers to a 6-4 WHL victory over the Spokane Chiefs before 3,859 fans at Interior Savings Centre.
Ranford, who led the Blazers in goals (33) and points (86) last season, missed this season’s first three games as he completed a six-game suspension left over from last season.
Obviously, he was excited to get his season rolling and he had a lot of jump early. Just 3:24 in, he cut across the Spokane zone and fired a shot back against the flow, as he often does, and beat goaltender Zach Rakochy, who was making his WHL debut.
“Getting that first goal early was key,” Ranford said. “But it doesn’t matter who scores . . . we just need the goals.”
The Blazers had scored 14 goals over their previous two games, and through 50 minutes were in total control of this one, with a 5-1 lead.
In fact, when freshman winger Aspen Sterzer scored a shorthanded goal, somehow, while falling, getting a one-handed flip up and over Mac Engel at 8:56 of the third period, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking school was out. Kamloops had that 5-1 lead and, to that point, owned the play.
“I got hit,” the 17-year-old from Canal Flats said of his first WHL goal. “I got up and saw it going over his back. I saw the guy coming and just tried to get it on net. And it went in.
“I was pretty excited.”
However, the Blazers promptly stopped moving their feet and their puck-pursuit game dried up. Suddenly, a game that had been played mostly in Spokane’s zone now was centred in front of Blazers goaltender Cam Lanigan.
And the Chiefs quickly scored three goals to make a game of it.
“We got away from our plan. We had to get things deep a little bit more,” Sterzer said.
“We came out and played hard the first 30 or 40 minutes,” he said. “Then we got away from our game plan and we can’t do that. We’ll learn from that. It’s the start of the season and, hey, we got two points . . . from a hard-working team.”
J.T. Barnett, in his first game after sitting out three with a knee injury, Jordan DePape, Austin Madaisky and J.C. Lipon, the latter into an empty net, had the Blazers’ other goals.
Darren Kramer, with two, Reid Gow and Jason Fram replied for the Chiefs (1-2-1).
The game ended at 9:41 p.m.; Spokane head coach Don Nachbaur still was in the dressing room as the clock tolled 10. It is safe to assume he wasn’t scheduling a turkey dinner.
With the victory, the Blazers (3-1-0) closed out their season-opening four-game homestand.
They are scheduled to leave for Everett this morning at 10:30, where they are to play Mark Ferner and the Silvertips tonight. Ferner is in his first season as head coach of the Silvertips; in fact, he got his first victory with his new team last night, beating the visiting Portland Winterhawks, 4-2. Tonight will mark the first time Ferner has coached against the franchise for which he once played and also coached.
The Blazers return home to face Emerson Etem and the Medicine Hat Tigers on Monday, 2 p.m. Etem scored four times last night as the Tigers dropped a 5-4 decision in Victoria. Etem, 19, has 11 goals in six games.
Two years ago, he torched the host Blazers for four goals in a 12-5 Medicine Hat victory on Thanksgiving Day.
Fans may find out in a hurry, then, whether the Blazers learned their lesson last night.
“You can learn from those mistakes and win hockey games,” Kamloops head coach Guy Charron said. “As a team, we have to realize when we are up three or four goals going into the third period there is no way we should allow another team to come back.”
Ranford wasn’t about to disagree. But, as he said, it’s early.
“We have another 68 games to play,” he stated. “If we have this problem when there are 10 or five games left, then it’s an issue.”
JUST NOTES: The Chiefs were 2-for-6 on the power play; the Blazers were 1-for-7. . . . Lanigan stopped 20 shots. Rakochy, whose namebar read ‘Rakocy’, turned aside 12 of 15 shots, while Engel came on to play the last two periods and stopped 13 of 15. . . . Sterzer’s goal was the Blazers’ third shorthanded score this season; they scored four all of last season. . . . Veteran F Dominik Uher, 19, of the Chiefs completed a three-game WHL suspension by sitting out last night. . . . Among the Chiefs’ scratches was F Liam Stewart, who suffered a shoulder injury last weekend when he absorbed a hit from behind. He is the son of actress/model Rachel Hunter and music legend Rod Stewart. . . . The Daily News Three Stars: 1. Kamloops D Josh Caron: Plus-4, a third-period glove save and a beauty, and a pugilistic victory; 2. Ranford: He’s back; 3. Sterzer, fine defensively and a goal to remember. . . . Tom Gaglardi, the Blazers’ majority owner, spent the the last three days in Dallas and watched from a luxury suite last night as the Stars opened their NHL season with a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. He is hoping to purchase the Stars, who are in bankruptcy. Should no one bid more than his US$267 million, he could be named owner some time after Oct. 22.
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