The Kamloops Blazers, their needle on empty, dug deep and found a way to beat the Prince George Cougars 2-1 in a shootout Friday night at Interior Savings Centre.
It was the sixth game in eight days for the Blazers and it showed in the game's latter stages.
"The kids find a way," Kamloops head coach Guy Charron said. "It wasn't easy tonight. You could see the cohesion wasn't there. Legs aren't moving at the same pace. The pucks are bouncing everywhere but where we're hoping they'll bounce. But that happens.
"Our focus was to make sure we played good defence."
The Blazers did that, limiting the Cougars to 13 shots through the first two periods. The visitors did muster 14 shots over the third period and overtime, getting five shots in the extra period, some of that manufactured on a power play.
In the end, though, the Blazers were able to improve their record to 17-1-1, this victory coming on shootout goals by forwards Brendan Ranford and Cole Ully, both left-hand shots who beat goaltender Mac Engel with dekes to the backhand.
"I guess I learned a few things from (Ranford)," Ully said. "I had a move planned out . . . that was the move I was thinking of and it worked out."
The Blazers will take today off before beginning preparations for a Tuesday night visit from the Edmonton Oil Kings, who are the WHL's defending champions.
Kamloops went 5-1-0 over the last eight days. They lead the B.C. Division by 15 points over the Kelowna Rockets and the Western Conference by 12 points over the Portland Winterhawks, who are 7-0-1 in their last eight games.
It's also worth remembering that the Blazers' 5-1-0 stretch followed on the heels of a road trip into the Central Division on which they went 5-0-0 over seven days.
"It's demanding," Charron said. "We feel it as a staff with the travel. We feel fatigue so obvioiusly it is demanding on them."
And after playing Tuesday, the Blazers will hit the road again for a three-game weekend that features dates with the Spokane Chiefs, Tri-City Americans and the Winterhawks. The WHL schedule-maker perhaps shouldn't expect a Christmas card from the Kamloops dressing room.
"After that many games," Ully said of the past week, "it's tough but we fought through it and got a lot of points out of the six games, so it was good."
Last night, after a scoreless first period, Prince George defenceman Marc McNulty, a 17-year-old from Medicine Hat, got the game's first goal, cashing a rebound at 1:15 of the second period.
The Cougars (7-7-2) had another great opportunity two minutes later when a Caleb Belter shot hit the knob on goaltender Cole Cheveldave's stick. The puck bounced over Cheveldave's shoulder and on to the goal line from where he was able to sweep it away with the blade of his stick.
The Blazers pulled even at 1:36 of the third period when centre Matt Needham scored his fourth goal this season. Cougars head coach Dean Clark was livid after the play, the goal coming immediately after Blazers winger Dylan Willick laid out defenceman Dan Gibb with a hard hit along the boards in the visitors' zone.
The officials met in front of the penalty box but didn't change a thing.
"(Gibb) got pushed in the top of the back and they're saying there's no penalty," Clark said. "You're kidding me!"
Willick, the Blazers' most versatile and arguably most valuable player, left the game while killing a penalty in overtime. He got caught in traffic during a pileup in Cheveldave's crease and was unable to get up without help. Once upright, Willick wasn't able to put any weight on his right leg.
When Charron came out to address the media, he said doctors were still looking at Willick in the Blazers' medical room.
The Blazers were coming off a 3-0 loss to the Rockets in Kelowna on Thursday night that ended their franchise-record 14-game winning streak. In that game, like last night, they went into the second period having allowed only one goal.
"When we do that," Charron said, "even when we're not at the top of our game, we give ourselves a chance to win."
Despite the loss, Clark wasn't disappointed in his club's play.
"We played hard," he said. "They're still a good team, regardless how many games they've played recently."
JUST NOTES: The attendance was 5,363. . . . Cheveldave, now 12-1-0, finished with 26 saves through OT and stopped F Zach Pochiro and F Colin Jacobs in the shootout. . . . Engel stopped 23 shots. . . . The Blazers were 0-for-3 on the PP; the Cougars were 0-for-4. . . . Kamloops D Sam Grist (ribs) was scratched after leaving Thursday's game after one period. He suffered a thorax injury earlier this season, while with the Tri-City Americans, but Charron said this isn't a reoccurrence. Charron added that he hopes Grist will be able to practise Monday and play Tuesday. . . . The Cougars left after the game for Kelowna where they are to meet the Rockets tonight. . . . The Daily News Three Stars: 1. D Marek Hrbas, Kamloops: Best of a top-notch crew; 2. McNulty: Big guy has four goals in nine games; 3. Needham: Around the puck.
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