From Russia, with goals, assists and physical play. Finally.
JC Lipon, the Kamloops Blazers' hard-skating, hard-shooting, hard-hitting right winger, has served notice that he's back.
Lipon scored two goals and set up two others on Saturday night, his dominant performance leading the Blazers to a 5-3 WHL victory over the Red Deer Rebels at Interior Savings Centre.
The 19-year-old Lipon, a Regina native, led the WHL scoring race through a lot of the early season, but then he left for the Canadian national junior team's selection camp. Subsequently, he made the team and played at the World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
He was away from the Blazers for a month and when he returned, on Jan. 11, he wasn't the factor he had been. Six games after his return, head coach Guy Charron went so far as to suggest that Lipon was "still on Russian time."
While that no doubt stung, Lipon admitted Saturday night that his body paid a price for his travels.
"For sure," said Lipon, who had never before been overseas. "I've been having trouble sleeping the last three weeks. I'm just starting to get back to sleeping well.
"It's definitely different coming back, for sure."
Lipon put up career highs in goals (19), assists (46) and points (65) last season. This season, he's got 76 points, including 30 goals, in 48 games, good for fifth place in the point derby.
He admitted that prior to this season he had hoped to get 20 to 25 goals.
"It's a good feeling" to have 30, he said.
He scored two key goals Saturday, the first giving the Blazers a 2-1 lead when he beat goaltender Patrik Bartosak from directly in front with a quick wrist shot at 2:01 of the second period.
That goal came just 18 seconds after Lipon had served a double minor for high-sticking.
"After I took that penalty," he recalled, "I realized I had to get it going. I scored coming out of the box and that kind of got the ball rolling."
Lipon's 30th goal, off another wrist shot, this one from the left faceoff dot, gave Kamloops a 3-2 lead at 11:38 of the second period. The Blazers wouldn't be caught again.
"Definitely this last little stretch I've been playing really well," Lipon said. "I'm being physical a bit more and fighting a little bit, and having fun doing it."
It's not that Lipon has been playing like a dog - after all, he's got 18 points in his last 10 games, with six multi-point games over that stretch. But there have been some inconsistencies as Lipon, who played for almost two complete seasons with Colin Smith and Tim Bozon, worked to get used to new linemates Brendan Ranford and Dylan Willick.
"It's nice to see that (Lipon) can generate some offence," Charron said.
Chase Souto, Marek Hrbas and Ranford, who had two assists, also scored for the Blazers, the latter getting his 15th goal into an empty net.
Rhyse Dieno, Wyatt Johnston and Dominik Volek replied for the Rebels, who were playing their third game in four nights. They beat the Seattle Thunderbirds 6-3 in Kent, Wash., on Saturday, bussed to Chilliwack after the game, and then drove on to Kamloops later Saturday.
The Blazers may have put away the Rebels early, if not for Bartosak, who finished with 29 saves.
"Bartosak made some really key saves at times when we could have put the game away," Charron said. "Trust me. He allows them to be in every game and the team feeds off that."
The victory, combined with a two-game sweep of host Kelowna by the Portland Winterhawks and the Rockets' 3-2 victory over the Silvertips in Everett on Sunday, got the Blazers closer to top spot in the B.C. Division.
The Blazers (37-15-5) are seven points behind the division-leading Rockets (41-13-4) with each team having 15 games remaining. They'll play each other four more times, starting with a game here Friday and a return match Saturday in the Little Apple.
Before then, the Blazers will play the Giants in Vancouver on Wednesday, with the Rockets taking on visiting Everett on Thursday. The Giants have the WHL's poorest record, so the Blazers know they can't be looking past that game.
"We just have to be ready," Lipon said of the approaching games with Kelowna. "They lost two this weekend, so we have a chance to catch them. That's our goal . . . that's our goal, for sure."
Kamloops defenceman Sam Grist, who played a man's game full of physical play and blocked shots against Red Deer, agreed.
"We've got (15) games left, so it's key that we stay positive," he said. "We know in our minds that we can do it, that we can catch them."
JUST NOTES:Attendance was 4,727. . . . Willick picked up his 150th career point with an assist on Lipon's first goal. . . . The Daily News Three Stars: 1. Grist: Good night's work and the bruises to prove it; 2. Lipon: Looking like old self; 3. F Joel Hamilton, Red Deer: Best of the visitors. . . . The Blazers also got a strong game out of D Landon Cross, who had an assist and was plus-1. The sophomore from Brandon has quietly gotten better and better. . . . Kamloops D Joel Edmundson completed his four-game WHL suspension and is eligible to return Wednesday. . . . Former Blazers F Jordan DePape practised Sunday for the first time with the Rebels. He isn't likely to play until sometime in March.
© Kamloops Daily News