By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
When you are in the situation in which the Kamloops Blazers find themselves, every game is important.
Of course, that also was the case last season when the Blazers found themselves in the chase just to make the WHL playoffs, a race they ultimately would lose as they collapsed in the stretch run.
As this season heads into its second half, the Blazers find themselves at the other end of the spectrum. They are atop the B.C. Division and in the hunt for top spot in the 10-team Western Conference.
As they resume play today after an eight-night Christmas break, they know that home-ice advantage in the playoffs is at stake. They also know that, because they are a scintillating 24-9-2, they won’t be catching anyone by surprise. (Last season, the Blazers finished 29-37-6, meaning they already are within reach of that victory total.)
With a .714 winning percentage, the Blazers trail only the Tri-City Americans (27-7-0, .794), who lead the Western Conference by four points. Of the WHL’s 22 teams, the Americans (54) and Blazers (50) are the only ones with at least 50 points.
The Blazers, who last played Dec. 17 when they dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the host Moose Jaw Warriors, reconvened in Vancouver and practised there last night. They are to meet the Vancouver Giants (22-12-2) tonight. The Giants trail them by four points, with the teams to meet again Wednesday, 7 p.m., at Interior Savings Centre.
The Blazers, who finished the pre-Christmas schedule by playing six games in eight nights — they went 3-2-1 — in the East Division, will pick up the schedule by playing four games over six nights.
The Calgary Hitmen are here Friday, 7 p.m., with the Prince George Cougars following them in for a New Year’s Day engagement. Game time will be 6 p.m.
Tonight, the Blazers will be without three regulars — right-winger Jordan DePape continues to recover from shoulder surgery and hopes to return in March; defenceman Marek Hrbas is with the Czech Republic team at the World Junior Championship; and, centre Matt Needham is playing for Team Pacific at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge in the Windsor area.
As well, winger Ryan Hanes is questionable with what the teams is calling an “upper body” injury.
The Giants, meanwhile, are missing head coach Don Hay, who is the head coach of the Canadian entry at the WJC. In his absence, assistant coach Glen Hanlon is running the bench.
Also missing from the Giants are five players. Forwards Brendan Gallagher (Canada) and Marek Tvrdon (Slovakia) are at the WJC, as is defenceman David Musil (Czech Republic). Forwards Anthony Ast and Jackson Houck are with Needham on Team Pacific.
On top of that, Vancouver forwards Nathan Burns (ankle), Scott Cooke (mono) and Kiefer McNaughton (jaw) aren’t expected to play tonight or Wednesday.
As of last night, there was no word on Giants’ recalls.
The Blazers also return with the spectre of the Jan. 10 trade deadline hanging over them. Having dealt defenceman Josh Caron to the Everett Silvertips on Nov. 29, Kamloops has room for a 20-year-old and is believed to be looking for a forward, preferably a right winger who could skate alongside Brendan Ranford and Chase Schaber. That spot normally is occupied by DePape.
As well, the Blazers have added Jordan Thomson, 15, to their roster for the next few days, a move that leaves them with eight defencemen. Thomson, the fourth overall selection in the 2011 bantam draft, has 15 points, including 12 assists, with the midget AAA Southwest Cougars, who play out of Souris, Man.
JUST NOTES: Needham and Team Pacific are to meet Sweden in an exhibition game Wednesday in Tecumseh, Ont., thenn start tournament play Thursday against Team West, also in Tecumseh. . . . Kamloops hasn’t played at home since Dec. 7 when it whipped the Everett Silvertips, 6-1. . . . The Blazers have won five straight at home. . . . G Cole Cheveldave, who is expected to start for the Blazers tonight, has opened 15 of the club’s last 16 games. . . . Ranford leads Kamloops in assists (23) and points (41), while F Colin Smith is tops in goals (19). . . . The Blazers (12-4-2) and Americans (13-5-0) have the best road winning percentage (.722).