When the Kamloops Blazers came back from the Christmas break and lost their first three games, you could be excused for writing off their playoff chances.
But as they take the ice tonight in Portland against the Winterhawks, the Blazers (19-25-6) find themselves alone in third place in the B.C. Division. In other words, they hold down the division’s last playoff spot, albeit by only two points over the Vancouver Giants (20-27-2) and Prince George Cougars (20-29-2), both of whom have been going in the wrong direction of late.
(The Blazers are in Vancouver on Saturday night.)
So, you’re asking, what is responsible for the Blazers’ move up the standings?
They are 6-2-1 since losing those three post-Christmas games. In their last six games, they are 5-1-0.
While the coaching staff no doubt would point to a number of things, including spending less time in their zone, nothing has been larger than the play of freshman G Connor Ingram, 17. He is 6-1-1 in his last eight decisions. This comes after head coach Don Hay pointed to inconsistent goaltending as being a primary reason for first-half woes.
Now, with Ingram having seized the starting role, the Blazers are playing with more confidence and it’s showing in the standings.
Ingram, an undrafted list player from Imperial, Sask., is no stranger to high-pressure hockey. He played last season for the midget AAA Prince Albert Mintos and was the goaltender of record when they won the national championship in triple overtime.
He may well get tested tonight in Portland, as the Blazers may be without three of their top five defencemen.
Swiss freshman Michael Fora hasn’t played since being injured in Victoria a week ago, while I will be shocked if Slovakian freshman Patrik Maier doesn’t have a concussion after taking at least four punches to the face, including a violent overhand right, during a late third-period fight with F Nolan Volcan of the Seattle Thunderbirds on Wednesday night.
As well, Ryan Rehill has been suspended for one game, as has Seattle D Jared Hauf. They got into a staged fight — does that mean there can be an unstaged fight? — nine seconds into Wednesday’s game. (Kamloops and Seattle each was fined $250 for that bout. Ch-ch-ching!)
Should the Blazers be without Fora, Maier and Rehill and, if they don’t bring in anyone, they will be looking to veterans Brady Gaudet and Marc McNulty to eat up some major minutes.
Look for Dawson Davidson, 16, to be put into a larger role, too. An offensively gifted player, he joined the Blazers from the midget AAA Moose Jaw Generals after the Christmas break and continues to show improvement. He has a high hockey IQ and doesn’t often put himself in bad position. That’s important because, although the native of Moosomin, Sask., is listed on the roster at 5-foot-11 and 171 pounds, he doesn’t look to be anywhere near that large.
The other two defencemen on the Blazers’ roster are Cam Reagan and Travis Verveda, a pair of 17-year-olds who have been in 23 and 24 games, respectively.
One other note about the Blazers: Head coach Don Hay is the second-winningest coach in WHL history, his 628 regular-season victories trailing only Ken Hodge’s 742.
But before the Blazers got on a roll, Spokane head coach Don Nachbaur had closed to within two victories of Hay — 623-621. The Blazers then started winning, while the injury-riddled Chiefs hit the skids. The score now is 628-621.
It all got me to wondering if either of the WHL’s coaching Dons might one day surpass Hodge.
Hay will turn 61 on Feb. 13; Nachbaur is 56 as of today (Jan. 29).
Three 40 victory seasons would get either man within reach of Hodge’s total so, yes, it’s possible. However, neither man is likely to get to 40 victories this season, so three in a row isn’t at all a sure thing.