By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The Kamloops Blazers and Victoria Royals, who open a best-of-seven WHL first-round playoff series tonight at Interior Savings Centre, met eight times in the regular season.
The Blazers won seven, outscoring the Royals, 39-21.
When the regular season ended Saturday, the Blazers had a 47-20-5 record, good for 99 points. The Royals were 24-41-7, for 55 points.
There can be no doubting then that the Blazers are the favourites as this series gets rolling.
But do the Royals have a chance?
“I would say Kamloops should win the series, but . . .,” offered Dean Clark, the head coach of the Prince George Cougars, who didn’t qualify for the playoffs. “Kamloops can’t take them lightly. If they do that, they’ll be in trouble.
“If (the Blazers) go into this thinking it’s going to be easy, I think they’ll be in trouble.”
At a Thursday news conference, Guy Charron, the Blazers’ head coach, emphasized that won’t happen.
“We aren’t taking this series lightly, at all,” Charron said.
At the same time, Charron knows that the team’s outstanding regular season has led to high expectations among its fans.
”We would like to think that we won’t disappoint everyone,” Charron said.
Clark sees this series as the Blazers’ offence against the Royals’ defence. The Blazers scored 290 goals, the third-highest total in the WHL; the Royals surrendered a WHL-high 325.
“Defensively,” Clark said, “the Royals are going to have to be way better than they have been. They’ve given up a lot of goals. But they played well against Portland, so who knows?”
The Royals closed out the regular season by scoring 4-3 and 3-1 victories over the visiting Portland Winterhawks, who were one of three teams to finish with at least 100 points.
“Defensively,” Clark continues, “Kamloops has better puck-movers than what Victoria has.”
From a Kamloops perspective, he says, the Blazers “have to take (defenceman Hayden) Rintoul out of the equation by not letting him skate the puck up the ice. You have to make him move it . . . don’t let him skate it from end to end.”
Rintoul, the Royals’ captain, was acquired during the offseason from the Kootenay Ice, last season’s WHL’s champions. Victoria general manager/head coach Marc Habscheid was wanting to add that experience to a young roster.
Rintoul paid off with 51 points, including 17 goals, a team-leading 13 of them coming via the power play. He also was a team-worst minus-40.
But, as Clark points out, “Rintoul plays a lot.”
The Blazers are likely to use their defensive pairing of Austin Madaisky and Tyler Hansen against Victoria’s Jamie Crooks, who had a team-high 37 goals, and whomever Habscheid chooses as linemates.
Kamloops won’t juggle its lines, as Charron chooses to stick with what got his team this far.
In the eight games against the Royals, the Blazers got 35 points, including 16 goals, from the line of Tim Bozon, Colin Smith and J.C. Lipon. Lipon finished the season with 65 points, and 13 of them came against Victoria.
In all likelihood, then, that trio will see a lot of Victoria’s checking line that features Mike Forsyth, Tim Traber and Dakota Conroy.
But the Blazers’ top line may be the one that has Brandon Herrod between Brendan Ranford and Jordan DePape. Ranford put up 92 points in 69 games, while Herrod had 70 in 68. DePape, who missed most of the season with a shoulder problem, finished with 14 points in as many games.
And, if that isn’t enough, a third line that features Matt Needham with Chase Schaber and Dylan Willick boasts two 20-goal men. And seven of Schaber’s 23 goals came against the Royals.
“There’s no doubt the Blazers line up better against Victoria with their lines,” Clark says.
At the same time, the Royals may be missing two of their five 20-goal men tonight. Robin Soudek, who had 27 goals, sat out the last three games with an undisclosed injury, while Brandon Magee (23 goals) is believed to have injured a foot in the third period of the final game and may not play in the series.
“Soudek is a pretty good player,” Clark says, “and Magee’s got some speed.”
The Blazers also have an edge in the goaltending department where freshman Cole Cheveldave, a second-team conference all-star, is matched up against Keith Hamilton, who also is completing his first season.
Clark said he has concerns that Cheveldave, who has played 9-1/2 more games this season than he did with the AJHL’s Drumheller Dragons last season, may be “a little tired.” Cheveldave and the Blazers maintain they aren’t the least bit concerned about that, so time will tell.
And while observers are looking in from the outside and trying to predict the future, the Royals predictably are playing the respect card.
Habscheid began the week by claiming “some are picking (Kamloops) in three games, not just four.”
“We shouldn’t even go to Kamloops, the way it sounds,” he told the Victoria Times Colonist.
Dave Dakers, the Royals’ president, echoed that Thursday when he sarcastically told a news conference: “I’m not sure why we’re playing this series.”
JUST NOTES: All three Kamloops goaltenders picked up at least one victory against Victoria. Cheveldave, who starts tonight, was 5-1, 2.67, .901, while Cam Lanigan went 1-0, 2.85, .882, and Taran Kozun, who made an early-season start, was 1-0, 2.00, .913. . . . Victoria F Logan Nelson, who is from Rogers, Minn., had a terrific season, finishing with 62 points, including 23 goals. Against the Blazers, he had 11 points, four of them goals. . . . Hamilton, who will start in goal for the Royals tonight, was 1-5-1, 4.31, .872 against Kamloops.
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