After losing their respective bids to host the 2020 Memorial Cup, the Kamloops Blazers and Lethbridge Hurricanes vowed to play their way into contention for junior hockey’s holy grail.
If the Blazers’ 6-3 win on Friday night was any indication, both teams have already entered playoff mode.
That much was clear when Lethbridge’s Koletrane Wilson stepped up to lay a check on Orrin Centazzo. Wilson’s behavior drew the ire of Kamloops’ Montana Onyebuchi, more on that later…
3:14 into the game, Libor Zabransky found Centazzo through a narrow seam in the offensive zone, setting up the Blazers’ leading goal-scorer for his 43rd of the season.
Centazzo’s goal marked the fourth consecutive game the Blazers found the net first. 61 seconds later, Connor Zary converted on a 2-on-1 with Ryan Hughes, lifting a backhand over the sprawling pad of Carl Tetachuk.
35 seconds later, Trevor Thurston — drafted by the Blazers and traded to the Hurricanes earlier this season — fired a seeing-eye shot past Dylan Garand.
Thurston’s tally was his fifth of the season and first against his old team. Garand returned to action for the first time since February 1st.
With three goals in the first five minutes, physical play was the theme for the remainder of the period. Onyebuchi and Wilson exchanged words and appeared ready to settle the score but were separated by officials, leading to offsetting unsportsmanlike penalties.
After exiting the penalty boxes, the two defensemen squared off at center ice. “He was gonna give it to our top scorers all night so I just gotta protect my boys,” Onyebuchi added. “I know my role. I play hard-nosed defense.”
With each player receiving five for fighting and 10-minute misconducts, the Blazers outshot their opponents 19-9 in the first period while going down to five defensemen.
Offsetting penalties to Dylan Cozens and Sean Strange led to 4-on-4 action to start the second period. With the extra time and space, Oliver Okuliar took advantage of a turnover to score his 33rd of the season.
Zary restored the Blazers’ lead with his second of the game and 36th of the season, giving the home team the 3-2 lead heading into the break.
4:21 into the final frame, Alex Cotton, the WHL’s point-leader among defensemen, capitalized on a powerplay with his 19th of the season.
Cotton’s one-timer from the slot was Garand’s final blemish on an otherwise solid return to the crease. Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston noted the energy provided by his starting netminder: “He was excited to be back, you could sense that you could see it. He was a big part of our win tonight.”
Seven of the WHL’s top-30 scorers faced off in the game, including Dylan Cozens whose 82 points are good for fifth overall despite playing in just 50 games. Clouston praised the efforts of Onyebuchi and Sean Strange who spent much of the night playing against Lethbridge’s top line: “I thought they were really solid. Again, that’s a tough team to play against and we didn’t give up a lot. Those guys were really important tonight.”
With Calen Addison in the penalty box for roughing, the Blazers’ top unit went back to work. Quinn Schmiemann found Ryan Hughes who slapped home his 22nd of the season from a sharp angle, helping the Blazers take back the lead.
After Tetachuk’s departure from the net for the extra attacker, Hughes found the empty net for his second goal and fourth point of the game. The 20-year old, who played in his 300th WHL game on Wednesday, has now recorded 10 points in his last five games.
Zary put the nail in the coffin with his empty-net hat trick goal, giving the 18-year old six goals and 12 points in his last six games.
The Blazers now sit 13 points clear of the Victoria Royals and Vancouver Giants after Friday’s victory. Lethbridge is now tied with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the Central Division with 81 points, 13 back of the Edmonton Oil Kings.