Thursday, January 12, 2012

Freshman goaltender leading Blazers' march

Cole Cheveldave of the Kamloops Blazers has made quite an impact
in the early stages of his first WHL season.

(Photo by Murray Mitchell / Kamloops Daily News)
It wasn’t the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins doing battle in Beantown on Saturday, in their first meeting since the Bostonians had won a bitterly contested seven-game Stanley Cup final in June.
But considering that the Tri-City Americans and Kamloops Blazers had played each other just once in the previous 308 days this game was pretty darn good.
The dislike for each other and all things to do with the opposing cities that the Canucks and Bruins have built up isn’t there with the Americans and Blazers, but that could come were they to meet in a lengthy playoff series.
That possibility being more than two months away, the game we witnessed on Wednesday night at Interior Savings Centre will have to do.
The game featured two of the WHL’s top teams, the Americans having ridden a 13-game winning streak to first place in the overall standings and the Blazers, the leaders in the B.C. Division, trying to erase all memories of the disaster that was last season and to prove that they are for real.
The Blazers, as you no doubt will be aware, came away with a 3-2 victory, a triumph that moved them into second place in the overall standings, just three points in arrears of the Americans.
And suddenly the Blazers — head coach Guy Charron will be telling his guys not to get ahead of themselves — are within reach of first place overall.
You see, the Blazers have won four straight games, including three in a row over the Prince George Cougars, who are three points out of a Western Conference playoff spot.
And the Blazers’ next three games are against three more of the WHL’s lower-echelon teams. The seventh-place Seattle Thunderbirds are here on Friday at 7 p.m., with Mark Ferner’s Everett Silvertips, who have the WHL’s poorest record, following them in on Saturday. Finally, the Lethbridge Hurricanes, who are 13 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, will be here on Wednesday.
The Blazers have won nine of their last 11 home games and appear poised to make it 12 of 14. The Blazers are 7-1-2 in their last 10 outings.
While the Blazers are entertaining some of the WHL’s creampuffs (sheesh, Charron is going to hate that reference), the Americans will be finishing a four-game, non-creampuff road trip with stops in Vancouver tonight, Spokane on Saturday night and Portland on Monday afternoon.
Come Monday evening, it will be interesting to see who’s chasing whom. Or, as Blazers goaltender Cole Cheveldave yelled repeatedly whenever the Americans brought the puck through the neutral zone in Wednesday’s game: “Who’s got who?”
When pondering the Blazers’ season to this point, there is no better place to start than with Cheveldave, the 18-year-old freshman from Calgary. Sure, he was the AJHL’s rookie of the year last season with the Drumheller Dragons. But who saw this coming? He is among the WHL leaders in the three goaltending statistics that matter — 21-5-3, 2.45, .914.
Cheveldave warmed up for the Americans by beating the Cougars three times in seven nights, allowing one goal — ONE GOAL! — in the process.
He was solid against the Americans, too, coming up with 32 saves against an offence that finishes as well as do the Blazers.
To watch Cheveldave in action these days is to see a goaltender whose cool belies his inexperience at this level. He simply doesn’t appear to get flustered, not even when, as happened late in Wednesday’s game, the opposition is setting up camp in his zone and firing away. On the occasions when that happens, Cheveldave simply covers the puck, giving his guys a chance to catch their breath and regain their composure.
And this is a team that just doesn’t lose its composure the way it did last season and in the two or three seasons before that.
Right now, there are 17 teams averaging more penalty minutes per game than the Blazers. That is huge when you consider that for the last four seasons Kamloops has been among the WHL’s four most-penalized teams.
Yes, this team has had something of a makeover. The result is a much better work ethic and a more disciplined approach to the game and to the on-ice officials.
That work ethic begins with the young goaltender. When you talk to the coaching staff about him, Charron and associate coach Dave Hunchak quickly mention two things: 1. Cheveldave’s work in practices; and, 2. his desire to stop every puck he sees, including in practices.
It is that kind of tenacity that this team is developing.
But there also appears to be something else going on here. If this were a TV show, perhaps it would be called Breaking Good.
Presented with opportunities, such as a favourable schedule, these Blazers almost always have taken advantage of the situation. They have almost always beaten the teams they should beat, something that hasn’t always happened in the recent past.
With the projected No. 1 line of Brendan Ranford, Chase Schaber and whomever searching for consistency, along came Swiss freshman Tim Bozon and veterans Colin Smith and J.C. Lipon to light the fire. They have combined to pot 55 goals, and who saw that coming?
I could go on and on about magic moments and destiny — for example, no one in the Western Conference really loaded up at this week’s trade deadline — but it’s really too early for that kind of talk.
Still, how else to explain Wednesday’s winning goal coming from defenceman Tyler Hansen? The goal was his first of the season. Oh . . . it also ended a 93-game goal-less drought.

(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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