|Defenceman Tyler Hansen of the Kamloops Blazers takes care|
of Portland Winterhawks forward Nic Petan during Wednesday's
game at Interior Savings Centre.
(Photo by Murray Mitchell / Kamloops Daily News)
Daily News Sports Editor
The Kamloops Blazers saved their best for last Wednesday night, scoring five goals in the third period to beat the Portland Winterhawks 5-1 at Interior Savings Centre.
And make no mistake about it — by the time this WHL game had reached its conclusion, at 9:29 p.m., this was a soundly beaten Portland team. Not only had the Blazers erased a 1-0 deficit in the third period, but the home boys finished with a 44-25 edge in shots, including 20-9 over the last 20 minutes.
The Winterhawks, who have become known for their swagger, were staggering when the final buzzer sounded.
Portland had arrived in town riding high atop the overall standings and looking to distance itself from the Blazers, who were three points back. The loss, however, knocked the Winterhawks off the top rung, which now is shared by the Tri-City Americans and Edmonton Oil Kings, both of whom notched overtime victories last night. The Americans beat the Giants 2-1 in Vancouver, while the Oil Kings clinched the Central Division pennant with a 3-2 victory over the Moose Jaw Warriors.
The Blazers (45-17-5), who were coming off two straight losses to the Kelowna Rockets last weekend, skated themselves right back into the race, as they now trail Tri-City (47-17-3) and Edmonton (45-15-7) by two points. Portland (46-17-4) is one point off the lead.
As B.C. Division winners, the Blazers will be, at worst, the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference when playoffs begin on March 23, but first in the conference would assure them home-ice advantage through three rounds, should they get that far.
And, judging by what they showed last night, a playoff run like that certainly isn’t out of the question.
The Winterhawks, who received a jolt earlier in the day when the NHL’s Calgary Flames summoned winger Sven Baertschi under emergency recall, opened the scoring at 8:05 of the first period. Pepperpot Brendan Leipsic, a 17-year-old from Winnipeg, went to the net and got his 27th goal, banging in a rebound after goaltender Cole Cheveldave had made a good pad save off centre Cam Reid.
The first period, in which Kamloops had a 12-8 edge in shots, featured a lot of feistiness with the Blazers obviously feeling they could maybe break a few eggs if they could get into Portland goaltender Mac Carruth’s kitchen. The Blazers’ truculence in the area of the Portland goal perhaps paid off in the third period.
Carruth, who leads the WHL with 40 victories, was equal to the task, at least for two periods. A player who obviously feeds off emotion, he seemed to fight the puck early on but, despite the taunting of some of the fans, he appeared to get it back together as the game wore on. Until the third period, that is.
The Blazers’ puck-pursuit game, however, was terrific on this night and the pressure paid off in the third period.
When the Winterhawks went to the dressing room for the second intermission, they no longer were atop the overall standings, the Oil Kings having beaten Moose Jaw.
A few minutes later, the Portland boat began to leak.
Kamloops centre Colin Smith, who had a strong game, pulled his guys even when he snapped a five-game goalless spell at 3:22, scoring off a rebound after he had won a faceoff in the Portland zone.
Three minutes later, winger Chase Souto went hard to the net and pounded a rebound past a startled Carruth. That goal, Souto’s 13th in 102 career games, stood up as his first game-winner.
Just 89 seconds later, winger Jordan DePape took a pass from Brendan Ranford and finished off a 2-on-1 by tucking the puck into the open corner as Carruth played Ranford to shoot.
The Winterhawks were adrift at sea as general manager/head coach Mike Johnston used his timeout.
It didn’t matter. There would be no denying the Blazers on this night. By now, they had decided this was their game and their puck, and the visitors couldn’t do anything about it, and they knew it.
Brandon Herrod scored into an empty net at 19:06 and, with Carruth back in, Ryan Hanes stuffed one past him following a coast-to-coast gallop by speedy Aspen Sterzer.
Cheveldave finished with 24 saves, but was rarely challenged. His defencemen, led by Tyler Hansen and Marek Hrbas, both of whom were nothing short of magnificent, were more than stellar in keeping the Winterhawks at bay.
Carruth, meanwhile, was peppered for a lot of this one — with pucks, with snow, with traffic. By game’s end, yes, his eggs were scrambled.
The Blazers went into the game without captain Chase Schaber, who is out with an undisclosed injury that is believed to be leg-related. And they survived a scare at the end of the second period when Dylan Willick, who has been their most consistent forward, got the worst of an inadvertent collision with Portland winger Brad Ross as the buzzer sounded.
Willick was helped off the ice by defenceman Austin Madaisky and trainer Colin Robinson and it didn’t look good. But he was back for the third period, and you know that he enjoyed every minute of it.
The Blazers now are an incredible 16-2-1 in games against U.S. Division. They will play their final regular-season game against a U.S. opponent on Wednesday when they meet the Chiefs in Spokane.
The Blazers finished the season series against Portland with two victories in four tries. This one was by far the most meaningful.
JUST NOTES: Attendance on the last rain-check night of the season was 5,693, the largest crowd of the season and the third-largest regular-season crowd in franchise history. . . . The Blazers were 0-5 on the PP; the Winterhawks were 0-2, both of them in the first period. . . . Baertschi, the WHL’s only two-points-per-game player, had 94 points in 47 games when he headed for Calgary last night. He is expected to make his NHL debut on Friday against the visiting Winnipeg Jets. . . . Portland now has three eligible forwards in the NHL, with Nino Niederreiter (New York Islanders) and Ryan Johansen (Columbus Blue Jackets) having been there all season. . . . The Daily News’ Three Stars: 1. Hansen: A monster game; 2. Willick: Heart and soul, again; 3. Hrbas: Solid. . . . The Blazers next play Friday when they travel to Vancouver; the Giants are here Saturday night. . . .Prior to the game, WHL commissioner Ron Robison presented Greg (Spike) Wallace of the Blazers with a Distinguished Service Award. Wallace, who is the Blazers’ community and sponsorship co-ordinator, received a standing ovation from the fans. . . . The WHL has fined the Blazers $500 for “inadequate security where the on-ice officials exit the ice surface” at the ISC. That comes after an inebriated fan doused the officials with beer as they left the ice at the end of the Blazers’ 6-3 loss to the Kelowna Rockets on Friday.
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