By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
Dylan Willick, the last captain of the Kamloops Blazers, no longer is with the WHL team, having played out his eligibility last season.
But you can bet there were some Blazers-related grins in the Willick family home on Sunday night.
That’s because goaltender Cole Kehler and left-winger Nathan Looysen, a pair of newcomers who are living with the Willicks, were front and centre in a 4-3 overtime victory over the Vancouver Giants at Interior Savings Centre.
Kehler, who won’t turn 16 until Dec. 17, was outstanding in making 41 saves, while Looysen got the game-winner just 53 seconds into overtime.
“Boys are super pumped and so are we!” Melissa Willick, Dylan’s mother, told The Daily News in a postgame tweet.
The goal by Looysen, a Saanichton native who will turn 17 on Nov. 24, brought to an end a rather spotty performance by a Kamloops team that dressed 10 freshmen, two more than did Vancouver.
“One thing with the young group, we have to learn to be consistent with our compete level,” Kamloops head coach Dave Hunchak said. “At times, we really pushed the pace the way we’re capable of doing. At other times, we sat back and watched and tried to think the game too much, instead of just playing the game.
“As a result, you get chasing around in your own end and once you get running around in your own end it’s a pretty tough game to play.”
On this night, whenever the Blazers got chasing their tails in their zone, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Kehler was there to bail them out in what was his WHL debut.
“It’s a fast game out there. It’s real fast,” said Kehler, who is from Altona, Man., where he played for a high school team last season. “I felt good. I felt I was in position a lot. It didn’t feel too overwhleming.
“I won’t lie . . . I was nervous to start. But after that first one goes in . . . you just have to tell yourself ‘don’t worry about it, get your mind right, make the next save and go from there.’ ”
The first goal Kehler gave up was his fault as he went out to play a puck with his side on a first-period power play. He left it beside the net, only to have Vancouver forward Joel Hamilton pick it up and snap it past him.
Other than that one, Kehler was on his game.
“He played very well. He was excellent,” Hunchak said.
It was because of Kehler that the Blazers only trailed 1-0 at the first intermission. The home boys were outshot 17-5 as they struggled to cope with Vancouver’s forechecking game.
“For (Kehler), it’s a big confidence boost, and for our team” Hunchak said. “Our team now knows that the young guy can play.”
The Blazers roared back with three second-period goals, two from Tim Bozon and another from Aspen Sterzer.
But the Giants spent more and more time in the attacking zone as the third period wore on. Defenceman Arvin Atwal got a point shot past a screened Kehler on a Vancouver power play at 9:09 and then, with goaltender Payton Lee on the bench and fewer than 13 seconds remaining, Alec Baer forced OT when he scored from a messy scramble in the crease area.
But the game ended on the first shot of extra time.
Looysen came off the bench, took a terrific cross-ice bounce pass off the side boards from defenceman Sam Grist and went in to beat Lee high to the stick side at 0:53.
Looysen admitted to being “extremely surprised” when the puck ended up on his stick.
“I came off the bench and . . . knew I wanted to get over to the far blue line,” he said. “I saw Sam with the puck and I just took off and he gave me a great pass.
“I knew there was a guy on my tail . . . I got a good shot off . . . stick-side high. I knew I’d catch (Lee) off guard and I didn’t want to try and cut in.”
Looysen made his debut on Friday in Kelowna and, like Kehler, was struck by the speed.
“It’s a lot faster than what I’m used to,” Looysen said, nothing that he played for the junior B Peninsula Panthers on Vancouver Island last season. “It’s something I’ll definitely have to adjust to over the next couple of games.”
He isn’t alone in that department.
The Blazers are 1-1 in the exhibition season, having fallen 4-3 in Kelowna on Friday night. Kamloops next plays Friday when the Rockets visit the ISC. Game time is 7 p.m.
JUST NOTES: The Giants finished with a 44-27 edge in shots. On Friday, the Rockets outshot the Blazers, 35-17. “We have to get our shots-against down,” Hunchak said. . . . The Blazers’ roster is down to 25 after F Jake Kryski, F Quinn Benjafield and D Travis Verveda were reassigned. Kryski (Okanagan Rockets) and Benjafield (Vancouver-Northwest Giants), both 15, are expected to play in the B.C. Major Midget League. Verveda, who signed a WHL contract on Sunday, will join the midget AAA Red Deer Optimist Chiefs. . . . F Cole Ully has left for the Dallas Stars’ camp; he was selected in the fifth round of the NHL’s 2013 draft. . . . Bozon leaves Wednesday to join the Montreal Canadiens. He was a third-round pick in 2012. . . .
Among Vancouver’s scratches were F Tyler Benson, the first overall pick in the 2013 WHL bantam draft, and F Ty Ronning, the son of former NHLer Cliff Ronning. . . . Giants F Jack McClelland, a native of Wichita, Kansas, is the son of former NHLer Kevin McLelland, who did a turn as head coach of the Prince Albert Raiders (1998-2000). He now is head coach of the Central league’s Wichita Thunder.
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