Monday, October 17, 2011

Early-season success has Blazers riding high

Head coach Guy Charron says the Kamloops Blazers need
to enjoy first place while they're there.

(Photo by Christopher Mast / Mastimages.com)

By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor’
When the Kamloops Blazers went to bed Sunday night, having won three games over the previous 48 hours, they did it knowing they were riding high.
At 7-2-0, they and the Saskatoon Blades held the WHL’s best winning percentage (.778). As well, the Blazers were tied for first place atop the Western Conference with the Tri-City Americans (7-4-0, .636).
Yes, the Blazers are doing all right for a team that finished ninth in the Western Conference and wasn’t able to qualify for last season’s playoffs.
Kamloops head coach Guy Charron let a hint of smile cross his face when the question was asked: “What does it feel like in first place?”
“It brings a certain reward,” Charron said, “but there is a long ways to go.”
Still, Charron allowed, “you have to enjoy it while you’re there.”
Charron added that the coaching staff is finding a lot of satisfaction in the early-season results.
“What is really rewarding to the coaches is the way the team has played and the way the players are responding,” Charron said. “We aren’t doing anything special; the players know what the task at hand is.
“Winning is a habit and when you start winning you get a lot of confidence.”
The Blazers, right now, are on the top side of what can be a vicious circle. When a team has early-season success, the players buy into what the coaches are selling and the victories keep coming. If there isn’t success in the early going (see: Hurricanes, Lethbridge), stuff happens.
“They make our jobs very easy,” Charron continued, “because they’re doing it themselves . . . that’s the reward we get as coaches. When the players have bought into a certain way and they believe that that’s how they have to play to be successful, then that’s half the battle.”
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The Blazers hadn’t swept a three-game weekend since Dec. 28-30, 2006, when they beat the host Vancouver Giants 4-3 in a shootout, then returned home to beat the Moose Jaw Warriors 5-4 in overtime, and the Prince George Cougars, 6-1.
That same season, the Blazers swept three games Dec. 1-3.
Both of those weekends were part of eight-game winning streaks.
That edition of the Blazers went on to win 40 games, the last time this franchise has had that kind of regular-season success.
Since Dec. 28-30, 2006, the Blazers had played 15 three-in-threes without even one sweep. In those games, they were 18-23-4.
In 2007-08, they had six such series. That fell to three in 2008-09, two in 2009-10 and none last season. They won’t play another three-in-three this season.
———
The Blazers are to leave this morning for a three-game swing into Alberta. This will be their lone trip into the Central Division this season.
(The Blazers will complete their six-game East Division swing in Moose Jaw on Dec. 17. After that game, they will have 37 games remaining and all of them will be played within the Western Conference.)
Kamloops will open this trip against the Red Deer Rebels (5-3-0) on Wednesday. The Blazers will play the Lethbridge Hurricanes (2-8-1) on Friday and the Medicine Hat Tigers (7-3-0) on Saturday.
The Rebels have won two in a row. They are without centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the NHL’s first overall selection in the 2011 draft. He remains with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
The Hurricanes had lost eight in a row and made three trades on Sunday, sending G Brandon Anderson to the Brandon Wheat Kings, D Reid Jackson to Prince George and D Derek Ryckman to Tri-City. Two of the players who went the other way — G Liam Liston and D Spencer Galbraith, who had been with Brandon — played last night as  the Hurricanes lost their ninth in a row, 4-2 to the visiting Kootenay Ice. That victory lifted the Ice (7-2-2) into first place overall.
F Nick Buonassisi, who was acquired from Prince George, will make his Lethbridge debut against the Blazers on Friday. He was in the Cougars’ lineup here on Saturday night.
———       
As expected, the Blazers assigned G Taran Kozun to the SJHL’s Nipawin Hawks on Monday. Kozun, 17, is from Nipawin. He played last season for the midget AAA Prince Albert Mintos.
Kozun got into two games with the Blazers, going 1-1-0, 3.53, .857.
“Taran is an excellent young prospect,” Charron said. “It’s the timing of it right now. He needs to get more work.”
His departure leaves the Blazers with 23 players on their roster, including two goaltenders and eight defencemen. That doesn’t include injured RW Jordan DePape (shoulder).
———
One would think Cole Cheveldave of the Blazers was given some consideration as the WHL’s goaltender of the week. After all, he was 2-0-0 with a shutout on the weekend. His GAA for the two games was 1.00, and he stopped 49 of 51 shots for a .961 save percentage.
However, it was Red Deer’s Patrik Bartosak who took the honour. He was 2-0-0, 1.00, .966 last week.
Kamloops D Tyler Hansen, who has become a steady, reliable defender, was appreciative of Cheveldave’s weekend.
“He’s a pretty level-headed guy,” said Hansen, who is in his third season here. “When they’re coming wave after wave, he stays calm and plays his game. He doesn’t get too worked up about how we’re playing. He’s always positive and plays his game.”
Charron said he got some real insight into Cheveldave’s personality during his first start — a 6-2 victory over visiting Vancouver on Sept. 30.
“Between the second and third periods of his first game, he spoke up in the dressing room,” Charron said. “That was kind of unique. It’s great to have a young guy like him.
“He gives off a lot of confidence. You can tell with his mannerisms that nothing really bothers him.”
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C Colin Smith leads the Blazers in points (12) through nine games. He and LW Brendan Ranford are tied for the team goal-scoring lead, each with six.
“You try and get better in the summer,” Smith said, “and work on all areas of your game. This summer, I put a lot of time into trying to get better and its seems to be paying off.”
Last season, Smith had 50 points, including 21 goals, in 72 games. He also was minus-21, the second-poorest number on the team. This season, he is plus-8, second only to linemate Tim Bozon’s plus-9.
Smith said one of the keys to the club’s early-season success has been its starts.
“The first 10 minutes is huge,” he said. “It really sets the tone. Any time you start the game, you really want to . . . there’s nothing like having a slow start and being down two or three goals and then you have to catch up.”
 
gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca
     
gdrinnan.blogspot.com
     
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