At this point of the WHL season, the Kamloops Blazers are looking forward to nine days off.
The Blazers finished their six-game road trip to the East Division with a 6-3 loss to the Broncos in Swift Current on Tuesday. The game not only marked the official halfway point of the regular season for Kamloops, it also took the team into a nine-day Christmas break.
The Blazers are scheduled to return to action on Dec. 27, with a game against the Rockets in Kelowna. Kamloops’ first home game after the break is scheduled for Dec. 29 against the Vancouver Giants.
Kamloops had lost 12 straight before heading off on the six-games-in-eight-nights trip, and fared relatively well, going 3-3 against the East Division.
“I think after going 3-1 in our first four games, we wanted to do a little better than 3-3,” admitted Blazers head coach Dave Hunchak. “But it’s a tough trip. It’s a lot of travel and it’s a long 10 days.”
The team is starting to feel some pain. Captain Matt Needham blocked a shot with a leg early in Tuesday’s game, and sat out the rest of the contest. Hunchak said the 18-year-old centre couldn’t put any pressure on the injured leg, but the team suspected it was just a matter of bruising.
He was in the crowd with Chase Souto, who suffered an “upper body” injury in a 5-2 loss to the Warriors in Moose Jaw on Sunday, and Joe Kornelsen, who has missed seven games with a head injury.
“Injuries are starting to creep in,” Hunchak said, noting that Souto could be out 2-4 weeks and Kornelsen will be re-evaluated when the players reconvene in Kamloops on Dec. 26.
Kamloops got Tuesday’s game off to a great start, scoring two power-play goals 41 seconds apart in the first period. Cole Ully got the party started, with Aspen Sterzer making it 2-0.
But the Broncos absolutely dominated the second period, outshooting their visitors 22-6 and taking a 3-2 lead on two goals from Colby Cave and a single from Glenn Gawdin.
“The first period, I thought we did really well. We got the two power-play goals,” Hunchak said. “But they really pushed us (in the second period) and we had a difficult time getting out of our end.”
Swift Current put the game away around the midway point of the third, with Tanner LeSann and Jay Merkley scoring 61 seconds apart for a 5-2 lead. Josh Connolly, on a power play, scored for the Blazers, before Dillon Heatherington iced it late.
The loss dropped the Blazers to 9-23-4 at the midway point of the 72-game regular season. It has been a rough campaign for the rebuilding squad, which is 15 points out of a playoff spot and will need more than one miracle to be playing postseason hockey come March.
But the 3-3 trip hasn’t hurt the team’s confidence.
“Guys are feeling a little better,” Hunchak said. “They’re seeing what they’re capable of doing. It was a pretty good trip and we did a lot of good things.”
JUST NOTES — F Collin Shirley had two assists for the Blazers, who were 3-for-5 on the power play. G Taran Kozun stopped 39 shots in the loss. Eetu Laurikainen stopped 27 shots for Swift Current, which was 2-for-6 on the power play. . . . The Blazers also scratched D Jordan Thomson, who remains at home in Manitoba. . . . The WHL’s trade moratorium runs through Dec. 27. . . . Kamloops gave up 40 or more shots on the last five games of the road trip. . . .
Portland F Brendan Leipsic has been suspended seven games by the WHL for a match penalty he was assessed in a Saturday game against the Seattle Thunderbirds. Leipsic was given a major for checking to the head after an incident that left Seattle’s Keegan Kolesar injured. Leipsic has been suspended twice prior in his WHL career. He is eligible to return Jan. 8. . . . The Rockets hammered the Saskatoon Blades 7-1 last night, Kelowna’s 13th straight road victory. It is the second longest in WHL history, behind the 18-gamer the 1999-2000 Calgary Hitmen put up. Kelowna now has won 12 straight, while Saskatoon has lost 11 in a row.