Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Old habits hard to break for Blazers

When this column started to write itself, sometime during the Thanksgiving weekend, the Kamloops Blazers had beaten the Silvertips 5-2 in Everett to improve to 4-1-0.
They had played four of their five games at home and were preparing to face the Medicine Hat Tigers at Interior Savings Centre on Monday afternoon.
A victory for the Blazers would move them into first place in the B.C. Division. In fact, a victory over the Tigers and the Blazers would have been tied with the Tri-City Americans for first place in the 10-team Western Conference.
As well, a victory over Medicine Hat would have been the Blazers’ fifth in a row. The best they had been able to muster last season was two three-game winning streaks.
This column was going to be about how this team was starting to look as though the kid who got dirt kicked in his face for a lot of last season had transformed itself into king of the hill over the course of one summer.
It was going to be about how the returning players appeared to have learned from last season’s mistakes, that they now understand that the less time you play in your zone the better off you are.
Yes, it’s early. Really, really early. But halfway through Monday’s game the Blazers held a 4-1 lead over the Tigers and the home boys were full marks for that lead.
But two minor penalties led to a pair of Medicine Hat power-play goals and the Blazers were on their heels, as they had been Friday night when they had watched a 5-1 lead over visiting Spokane shrink to a goal before finishing off the Chiefs with an empty-net goal.
The Tigers, of course, scored the only two goals of the third period, despite being outshot 15-5, and escaped with a 5-4 victory.
While the Tigers danced off to their dressing room, the Blazers, as they are wont to do this season, gathered at centre ice and raised their sticks in a salute to the fans. The players’ body language, however, showed only confusion and disappointment. What, they seemed to be asking, had just happened?
It’s fair to say that the Chiefs and Tigers are among the WHL’s upper echelon. The Blazers showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that when they are on the offensive, those teams can’t stop them, they can only hope to contain them.
As one longtime WHL observer said prior to Friday’s game, “When I look at the Blazers’ top nine forwards, they are as good or better than any in the league.”
That may well be true.
But, oh boy, when the opposition forces the Blazers to play in their defensive zone, the sweater has a tendency to unravel in a hurry.
However, as coaches will tell you — ad nauseam — the WHL’s regular season is a marathon, not a sprint. That being the case, the Blazers’ coaching staff has time to work on things and, hopefully, fix the problem.
The first thing that needs to happen is to get down to two goaltenders. Taran Kozun, 17, is the youngest of the three still on the roster, and he was overmatched against the Tigers. Yes, it may have been a coaching error to give the kid his second WHL start against Emerson Etem and the Tigers. But when you’re carrying three goaltenders you constantly are trying to find playing time for all three and it rarely, if ever, works to anyone’s satisfaction.
If the Blazers are to have any success with their roster as presently constituted, it will be with Cam Lanigan,19, starting and Cole Cheveldave, 18, in a secondary role. So it is time to do away with the uncertainty at this position by finding Kozun a place where he will play a lot more than once every 10 days.
The Blazers’ roster presently is at 25 players, including right-winger Jordan DePape, who will miss at least a month with a shoulder injury. Carrying extra players allows the coaching staff the latitude to sit out the non-performers, something head coach Guy Charron has said he won’t be reluctant to do.
The time to do that, then, is now. Charron and associate coach Dave Hunchak also should consider putting in the press box those players who choose to show a lack of discipline, especially at inopportune moments. When things happen, such as defenceman Josh Caron’s decision to punch Medicine Hat forward Kellan Tochkin in the head while the Blazers were trailing 5-4 with time of the essence on Monday, it brings back visions of the last two or three seasons, when undisciplined play ruled the roost here.
This is a team that has shown it can compete with the best this league has to offer when it plays disciplined hockey, when its forwards don’t leave the defensive zone early, and when it plays the majority of the game in the offensive zone.
Unfortunately, it showed Friday night and again Monday afternoon that some habits are awfully hard to break.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)

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