By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The three teams left in the hunt for top spot in the WHL’s Western Conference are into single digits, which means the race definitely is on.
Right-winger Jordan DePape of the Kamloops Blazers, who are one point off the pace, couldn’t be happier about getting an opportunity to play a part in the run to the end.
DePape, 19, hasn’t played since suffering a horrific injury to his left shoulder in an Oct. 10 scrap with winger Emerson Etem of the Medicine Hat Tigers. DePape underwent surgery in his hometown of Winnipeg on Nov. 4.
Asked after Thursday’s practice if he had been told he would be playing tonight against the visiting Kelowna Rockets, DePape’s light lit up like a neon sign.
“Yes,” he said. “Words can’t describe it. I don’t know what’s more exciting — my first (WHL) game or this one, coming back after five months.”
DePape will line up in his old spot, alongside centre Chase Schaber and left-winger Brendan Ranford, with the Blazers entertaining the Rockets at Interior Savings Centre. The teams will play again Saturday in Kelowna.
At the time he was injured, DePape had five points, including two goals, in six games. He was coming off a sophomore season in which he finished with 48 points, 21 of them goals, in 54 games.
If he is able to get back to that level of play, his return will be huge for the Blazers.
“Even if I can make that little bit of difference going into the playoffs,” he said. “(If I can) add a little bit of depth, a little bit of leadership . . . I’m a veteran guy so I’m hoping I can bring some of my tools and help the guys out.”
DePape knows, however, that he will have to be careful tonight that he doesn’t get too excited and allow that to dictate the way he plays. He also admitted to wondering a bit about that first solid hit.
“Maybe I’ll be a little nervous for the first few shifts,” he said, “but I think it’s a mental thing. I just have to tell myself things are going to be OK. I just have to believe everything’s stable.
“But (the shoulder) feels really good. Stability-wise, it feels pretty darn good. I feel confident and that’s the main thing.”
DePape has spent the last couple of weeks watching his team play. And what has he noticed?
“The main difference,” he said, “is this team has found ways to win rather than ways to lose. We’re definitely a harder-working team. We’re more consistent. Just our attitude . . . guys are confident and want to win this season.”
With DePape sliding into his old spot, Brandon Herrod will skate alongside Dylan Willick and Matt Needham, giving the club a third line, if you will, with 61 goals this season.
The other line, with Colin Smith between Tim Bozon and J.C. Lipon, has accounted for 81 goals.
Schaber, Ranford and DePape go into tonight’s game with 62 goals between them.
It is little wonder, then, that the Blazers feel confident about their top three lines.
The Tri-City Americans, who go into the third-last weekend of the regular season atop the conference, have nine games remaining. They are at home tonight to the Portland Winterhawks, then will play four straight road games, including a Sunday date in Portland, before finishing up with four in a row at home.
The Blazers are on the verge of clinching the B.C. Division title — they are 16 points ahead of the Vancouver Giants, who have nine games remaining — so will be, at worst, the No. 2 seed. Tonight, the Blazers begin an eight-game closing stretch in which they will alternate home and away games.
The Winterhawks are tied with Kamloops, one point behind the Americans.
Mike Johnston, the general manager and head coach of the Portland Winterhawks, is on record as saying his club will have to win seven of its nine remaining games if it hopes to finish where it wants, which is atop the conference.
The Winterhawks have six road games left; they are to visit Kamloops on Wednesday.
Should the Winterhawks close it up by going 7-2, they would have 51 victories. Last season, they won 50 games before making a run to the WHL’s championship series, which they dropped in five games to the Kootenay Ice.
JUST NOTES: Game time is 7 o’clock. . . . G Cole Cheveldave will start for Kamloops tonight. . . . Ranford and D Marek Hrbas didn’t practise yesterday as both were given the day off. . . . F Ryan Hanes left with an undisclosed injury in the third period of Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over the Silvertips and isn’t likely to play either game this weekend. . . . Hanes turned 20 on Thursday. . . . With D Brady Gaudet having scored his first goal of the season on Tuesday, Hrbas is the only Kamloops regular left to score. However, he does have 23 assists. . . . The Rockets (26-29-9) will finish sixth in the Western Conference, meaning they will play the third-place team — Tri-City or Portland — in the first round. . . . Kelowna continues to be without F Colton Sissons, its captain. He suffered a concussion on Feb. 11 in a 3-2 loss to the visiting Blazers. . . . Kamloops is 5-0-1 against the Rockets this season. . . .
D Ryan Rehill, a sixth-round selection in the 2010 draft, spent a few days skating with the Blazers but now has gone home to Edmonton. He played this season with the midget AA Edmonton-South Side Athletic Club side. . . . The Blazers play in Vancouver on March 9, with the Giants here on March 10. . . . Kamloops will make a one-game trip to Spokane and play the Chiefs on March 14. . . . The Blazers close out the season by going home-and-home with the Prince George Cougars. They’ll play here on March 16 and there on March 17. . . . The Blazers are expected to open the first round of the playoffs with games at ISC on March 23 and 24.
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