After spending the last few weeks as the hunted, the Kamloops Blazers now are the hunters.
While they clinched the WHL's B.C. Division pennant on Saturday night, the Blazers now find themselves third in the Western Conference. Of course, as B.C. Division champions, the Blazers will be no worse than the second seed in the conference when the playoffs open on March 23.
On Sunday, the Tri-City Americans got a goal from Justin Feser with 51.2 seconds left in the third period to beat the Winterhawks 4-3 in Portland. The Winterhawks hold down top spot in the conference by one point over the Americans and three on the Blazers.
The Winterhawks are next up on the Blazers' schedule. The teams will meet at Interior Savings Centre on Wednesday, 7 p.m.
The Blazers wrapped up the B.C. Division flag on Saturday, the first time they have accomplished that since 2001-02 when they finished two points ahead of the Kootenay Ice.
The race for first in B.C. ended at 9:22 p.m., when the final buzzer went on the Victoria Royals' 5-2 victory over the visiting Vancouver Giants. That loss left the Giants 15 points back with just seven games remaining.
Twelve minutes later, Kelowna forward Zach Franko scored from a bad angle to give the Rockets a 4-3 overtime victory over the visiting Blazers. The Rockets (28-29-9), who trail Kamloops (44-17-5) by 28 points, had doubled the Blazers 6-3 in Kamloops on Friday night.
The Blazers fell behind 4-0 in the series opener and expended a lot of energy in trying to come from behind. That may have cost them Saturday as they played their fourth game in five nights, only one of which was at home.
"We sensed fatigue (Saturday) . . . (on Friday), we gave it a good push - we had a lot of scoring chances and their goaltender played well," Kamloops head coach Guy Charron told the Kelowna Daily Courier. "Their team paid the price as far as blocking shots and doing the things they needed to do to win the hockey game. So it's a credit to them.
"I thought we started well with some tempo and they took the play away from us in the second period. I thought our third period was adequate enough for us to perhaps get the two points."
Kamloops forward Dylan Willick, with his 28th goal, opened the scoring just 39 seconds into the game, with defenceman Bronson Maschmeyer making it 2-0 at 6:39 of the second.
However, the Rockets came back with three goals in 8:25. Forward Brett Bulmer, who had two goals and an assist on Friday, got his 32nd of the season at 7:17. Kelowna then got its first lead on goals from defencemen Mitchell Chapman, at 13:31, and Madison Bowey, at 15:42. Bulmer also had two assists, giving him a six-point weekend.
Kamoops defenceman Austin Madaisky tied it on a power play two minutes later.
Franko won it with his 12th goal of the season at 2:31 of OT.
Kelowna goaltender Adam Brown, who stopped 43 shots on Friday, turned aside 28 in this one. Cole Cheveldave of the Blazers, who left Friday trailing 3-0 after the first period, stopped 29 shots.
The Blazers went 1-2-1 in those last four games; they are 3-5-1 over their last nine games as they have battled fatigue and a tougher schedule.
"I do believe sometimes having a tough schedule at the end of the season can be a benefit to your team," Charron said. "You don't want to be overconfident going into the playoffs even though you won your division. And you want that challenge. If you look at our schedule, we have Portland on Wednesday, we have a home-and-home with Vancouver, we have to go to Spokane and we finish the weekend with Prince George. They're all teams fighting for something.
"Portland wants to finish first overall. Vancouver wants to get home-ice advantage and they're fighting with Spokane. So we'll see what happens and we'll play it a game at a time. . . . We have a few injuries and we need to heal up some of those injuries, but if the cards are dealt that we can perhaps challenge for the conference, then great."
The Rockets, who clinched a playoff spot on Friday, are searching for some consistency with the postseason on the horizon.
"Right now, (the players) are excited," Kelowna head coach Ryan Huska said. "You have to feel like you can beat the best teams in the league, and Kamloops is one of the best teams in the league. So it was a good weekend for us; it shows our players that we can play against the best teams, and that's important."
JUST NOTES: Kamloops scratched F Ryan Hanes, who is hurt, D Tyler Bell and F Chase Souto. . . . Willick is on an eight-game point streak, with 11 points over that time. . . . Madaisky has 13 goals this season, 11 of them on the PP. . . . The Blazers won the season series with the Rockets, 5-1-2, although each team was credited with having scored 28 goals. . . . Kamloops F Tim Bozon appeared to suffer an injury to his right leg in the second period, but he returned to action. . . . After finishing first in the B.C. Division in 2001-02, the Blazers were swept from the first round by the Rockets. . . . The Americans took the season series from Portland, 6-4-0. The Americans won the first five games; the Winterhawks came back to win four in a row before losing last night. . . . A scoring change after Friday's game gave Kamloops D Marek Hrbas his first goal of the season. Hrbas also has 23 assists in 61 games. The goal, the Blazers' first in that game, had been credited to F Aspen Sterzer, who ended up with an assist. . . . There aren't any WHL games on the schedule for today.
© Kamloops Daily News