By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The chase resumes tonight.
The Kelowna Rockets were 18 points behind the Kamloops Blazers when November began.
The teams resume the WHL schedule tonight in Kelowna with the Rockets needing a victory to close the gap to four points.
While the Blazers (25-9-4) continue to lead the B.C. Division, they are 9-9-3 since taking a 14-game winning streak into Kelowna on Nov. 1. The Rockets won that game, 3-0.
The Blazers also went into Christmas having lost three in a row in Alberta.
Still, Kamloops is second in the Western Conference, five points behind the hard-charging Portland Winterhawks (29-5-1), and second in the overall standings.
Meanwhile, the Rockets (23-10-2), who hold three games in hand, have won 16 of their last 20 games, including a 4-1-0 pre-Christmas trip into the Central Division. Furthermore, they are 13-2-0 at Prospera Place, where they now have won 12 in a row.
Kelowna’s offence now is second in the WHL, with 143 goals, while its defence is third, having allowed just 87 goals.
The Blazers, who are fourth in offence (133) and sixth in defence (98), hold a 2-1-0 edge against the Rockets. The teams will clash six more times after tonight.
Both teams will be missing a number of players due to injuries and tournament commitments.
The Blazers are without right-winger JC Lipon (Canada) and defenceman Marek Hrbas (Czech Republic), both of whom are at the World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia, and defenceman Jordan Thomson, who is with Team West at the U17 World Hockey Challenge in Drummondville and Victoriaville, Que.
The Blazers also are awaiting the return of forwards Dylan Willick (broken ankle) and Cole Ully (mononucleosis).
Willick hasn’t played since being injured on Nov. 2; in fact, he was named the Blazers’ captain while he was out. Willick was scheduled to take part in a full practice Wednesday – the Blazers skated at 9 p.m. – for the first time since being injured but isn’t likely to play tonight.
Ully, who has missed 10 games, last played on Nov. 24. The Blazers are hoping he will play tonight, but he has yet to receive medical clearance, something that could happen today.
The Blazers also have brought in defenceman Connor Clouston, from the midget AAA Medicine Hat Tigers, and forward Mitch Lipon, JC’s younger brother, from the midget AAA Regina Pat Canadians. Clouston was a third-round selection in the 2011 WHL bantam draft. Lipon was placed on the Blazers’ list after attending training camp last fall and signed a WHL contract last week.
The Rockets, meanwhile, are hoping to have their captain, centre Colton Sissons, back soon. He hasn’t played since suffering a concussion on Nov. 30. That injury cost him a trip to the Canadian national junior team’s selection camp in Calgary.
Defenceman Mitchell Chapman, 20, has yet to play this season due to an ankle injury, while defenceman MacKenzie Johnston (knee) and forward Henrik Nyberg (undisclosed) were hurt as the Christmas break began.
The Rockets have three players at the U17 World Hockey Challenge – forwards Rourke Chartier and Austin Glover are with Team West, while defenceman Riley Stadel is with Team Pacific.
The Rockets also had both of their goaltenders – starter Jordon Cooke and backup Jackson Whistle – suffer undisclosed injuries on an Alberta trip that concluded on Dec. 16.
They are bringing in goaltender Jake Morrissey, a fifth-round selection in the 2012 bantam draft, as insurance. Morrissey, from Calgary, is the younger brother of Prince Albert Raiders defenceman Josh Morrissey.
Kelowna also has brought in forward Justin Kirkland, a fifth-round pick in the 2011 bantam draft. Kirkland, 16, is from Camrose, Alta.
JUST NOTES: The Rockets are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games; the Blazers are 5-3-2. . . . The Blazers are at home to the Vancouver Giants on Saturday. Game time at Interior Savings Centre is 7 p.m. . . . Kamloops F Colin Smith leads the WHL in assists (37) and goals (62). . . . Myles Bell, a career defenceman who has been moved to the forward ranks, leads the Rockets in goals (20) and points (48).
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