By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
This WHL season has not been kind to Chase Souto of the Kamloops Blazers.
Arguably their best forward during the long-ago exhibition season, the 18-year-old from Yorba Linda, Calif., has struggled to find his game since early October.
However, he perhaps took a step in the right direction on Friday when he turned in a physical effort and score the goal that gave the Blazers a 3-2 victory over the Tri-City Americans at Interior Savings Centre.
“I’m the first one to admit I’m the most inconsistent player in this league,” said Souto, who has nine points, including four goals, in 25 games. “Hopefully, I can build off tonight.”
Souto, who had 20 points, including 11 goals, last season, scored at 19:22 of the third period. His goal allowed the Blazers to improve to 21-6-2 and stay atop the WHL’s overall standings. They are a point ahead of the Portland Winterhawks (21-4-1), who came out of a rather turbulent few days to beat the visiting Seattle Thunderbirds, 5-2.
The Blazers are at home again tonight, 7 o’clock, as they meet the Moose Jaw Warriors, who lost 3-2 to the Rockets in Kelowna last night. Kamloops will climb on its bus after tonight’s game and head for Kent, Wash., and a Sunday evening date with the Thunderbirds.
Last night, the Blazers were seemingly in control, leading 2-1 with time ticking down in the third period. But a turnover by defenceman Marek Hrbas at the Tri-City blue-line resulted in an odd-man break the other way and forward Park Bowles finished it, forging a 2-2 tie at 14:57.
It remained that way until Souto struck on a play that began as a harmless looking 2-on-2 rush.
Charles Inglis “tied his guy up off the draw and I got it chipped past the (defence),” Souto recalled. Mike Needham “went hard and I went hard to the net. He gave me a great feed and I got the finish.”
Souto, showing the soft hands that he doesn’t use often enough, beat goaltender Eric Comrie with a deke to the backhand.
“We have to defend that 2-on-2 better,” offered Tri-City head coach Jim Hiller. “Give Souto credit . . . he made an outstanding play. But we have to defend that better.”
In the second period, Souto woke up the crowd when he went toe-to-toe with Tri-City winger Jesse Mychan.
“It was my first one of the season,” Souto said. “It felt good to get it out of the way and Mychan’s a tough guy. It was good to go. I think it woke me up and kind of got the boys back into it.”
Kamloops head coach Guy Charron admitted he liked a lot of Souto’s game in this one.
“It’s been a frustrating time for him,” Charron said. “There are games where he has played well and probably didn’t get a lot of reward. Him getting involved physically and into the fight (got) him in the game.
“Sometimes a person’s personality is that they have to do that. He handled himself very well. If it means for him to get himself going like that, he can go out and have a fight every game if he’d like to.”
Kamloops goaltender Cole Cheveldave, who looked comfortable in stopping 26 shots, enjoyed seeing Souto score the big goal.
“I thought he wasn’t going to score until after Christmas,” Cheveldave said with a laugh, “and then he comes up with that thing.
“For sure, he had his best game of this season. He had a great fight . . . won the fight. And he came out with a lot of energy after that and ended up scoring our winning goal.”
The Americans had opened the scoring, when forward Beau McCue took advantage of a turnover to fire a shot from the slot past Cheveldave.
But the Blazers got that one back just 41 seconds into the middle period when JC Lipon, with his WHL-leading 22nd goal, tapped in a loose puck that was laying in the crease.
Centre Colin Smith gave the Blazers their first lead at 8:56 when, from the lip of the crease, he banged a rebound past Comrie.
“Colin Smith is the workhorse,” Charron said. “He makes things happen. He’ll make anyone play well when they play with him.”
On this night, Brendan Ranford was on the left side with Lipon and Smith, who now are tied for the WHL points lead, each with 54. Tim Bozon moved off that unit and spent the night on a line with Inglis and a variety of right-siders.
Despite giving up the goal to Bowles, the Blazers played a solid third period, allowing only five shots and what Cheveldave felt was one scoring chance.
He and Comrie, a highly touted 17-year-old who turned aside 33 shots, staged a pretty good duel.
“I felt great,” Cheveldave said. “I felt good in there. My head was in it. It worked out well for us.”
Cheveldave said he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the opposing goaltender, but just wants to see both play well.
“I like to bounce off him. If we’re both playing good . . . we both kicked pretty good tonight and just fed off each other,” he said. “That’s a really good thing.
“You don’t want to see a guy have a bad night but you want to win
JUST NOTES: The attendance was 4,627. . . . The Americans were 0-for-3 on the power play; the Blazers were 0-for-2. . . . The Americans now are 4-2-1 against B.C. Division opponents, including 1-1-0 versus the Blazers. . . . Tri-City lost F Marcus Messier with an undisclosed injury five minutes into the second period when he took a hard hit from Blazers F Aspen Sterzer. Messier didn’t return. . . . Tri-City F Justin Gutierrez is the younger brother of ex-Blazers F Moises Gutierrez. . . . The Daily News Three Stars: 1. Smith: Makes everyone around him better; 2. Souto: Best game this season; 3. D Michal Plutnar, Tri-City: Good decisions.
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