By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The Kamloops Blazers will have a Merry Christmas.
That’s what happens when, nine months after not even making the playoffs, you find yourself leading one of the WHL’s four divisions and are just four points out of first place overall in the 22-team league.
“It’s exciting,” head coach Guy Charron said from Regina, where he and his wife, Michele, are spending some time with her family. Part of Sunday was spent — where else? — in an arena watching an eight-year-old nephew play hockey.
Charron and the Blazers headed into their Christmas break after dropping a 4-3 shootout loss to the Warriors in Moose Jaw on Saturday. Kamloops finished its East Division swing — it played six games in eight nights — at 3-2-1.
“It’s too bad that we didn’t come out with two points in Moose Jaw,” Charron said. “We dominated that game. Their goaltender was outstanding . . . outstanding.”
The Warriors, who have won three in a row, got 43 saves through overtime from goaltender Spencer Tremblay, a 17-year-old freshman from Winnipeg who won his second game of the season but first since Oct. 2.
“It felt really good to get a win — especially against a team like Kamloops,” Tremblay, 17, told Matthew Gourlie of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald. “This was a big game and a big test and it worked out well for us.”
Moose Jaw head coach Mike Stothers was impressed with the Blazers who, he said, are “a very, very good . . . team. They’re fast, they’re quick to pucks and they’re hard to play against.”
“Our speed,” Charron said, “was overwhelming to them.”
Charron added that the outcome left him wondering “how you can you dominate a game so much and find a way to not win?”
Ahead 2-0, the Blazers weren’t able to get that third goal and then ran into penalty problems.
“The three games we lost on this trip was because of the 5-on-3,” Charron stated.
Colin Smith, at 4:32 of the first period, and Austin Madaisky, 38 seconds into the second on a power play, gave the Blazers a 2-0 lead.
But the visitors soon found themselves twice facing 5-on-3 disadvantages and they got burned both times as Sam Fioretti and Andrew Johnson scored 40 seconds apart.
Moose Jaw defenceman Joel Edmundson added a third power-play goal to give the Warriors their only lead. Chase Souto tied it for the Blazers at 13:33 of the third period.
The shootout winner, from Johnson, bounced off a post, hit Kamloops goaltender Cole Cheveldave in the back and rolled over the goal line.
Eric Arnold also scored for Moose Jaw in the shootout, while Madaisky had the Blazers’ lone goal.
“Our players deserve a lot of credit,” Charron said, pointing out that despite this being his club’s sixth game in eight nights “the bench was alive and here’s Sterzer’s line banging away and scoring in the blue paint.”
That would be the grind line that features Aspen Sterzer with Souto and Ryan Hanes.
Cheveldave, who started all six games on the trip and went the distance in five of them, made 26 saves. An 18-year-old freshman from Calgary, he is 16-4-2.
The Blazers go into the break leading the B.C. Division by four points over the Vancouver Giants (22-12-2). Kamloops is four points behind the Western Conference-leading Tri-City Americans (27-7-0), who have won eight in a row and nine of 10.
The Blazers (12-4-2) and Americans (13-5-0) own the WHL’s best road records. Kamloops has 18 road games remaining, 12 of them against B.C. Division rivals and none of the 18 outside the Pacific time zone.
Kamloops returns from the Christmas break to play in Vancouver on Dec. 27, with the teams at Interior Savings Centre the next night.
By then, the Blazers expect to have centre Chase Schaber, their captain, back in the lineup. He has missed four games with a leg injury. Schaber rode a stationary bike Saturday for the first time since being injured.
“He’s very dedicated to getting himself back into shape to play,” Charron said. “At this point, I’m expecting him to play (against the Giants).”
Forward Matt Needham, who has missed four games with a head injury, will join Team Pacific after Christmas for the U-17 World Hockey Challenge in Windsor.
“The rest benefited him,” Charron said. “If he has a good tournament we’ll get him back in the right frame of mind.”
JUST NOTES: The Blazers also scratched F Jordan DePape (shoulder) and D Marek Hrbas, who is at the Czech national junior team’s selection camp. . . . The Blazers arrived back yesterday, at 12:15 p.m. They spent about 75 minutes sitting on the highway for avalanche control between Golden and Rogers Pass. Also sitting there were the Kelowna Rockets, who completed their swing with a 5-1 victory over the Blades in Saskatoon on Saturday. . . . Vancouver is expected to have Russian F Alex Kuvaev, 18, in its lineup next week. He had 24 points in 58 games with the Lethbridge Hurricanes last season. He was released after the season and started this season playing in Russia. . . . The WHL is in a trade freeze through Dec. 26. . . . The Edmonton Oil Kings had their 11-game winning streak end Sunday when F Jordan Weal’s goal with one second left to play gave the visiting Regina Pats a 6-5 victory.