A burden or gift, large or small, Saturday night at the Sandman Centre was full of spectators and participants who carried some kind of weight with them.
To suggest that the 5,026 fans were anxious to relieve some of that pressure would be an understatement — that much was obvious when Martin Lang’s shot early in the first period rang off the post, drawing up a resounding groan from the home crowd.
Any sense of anxiety or disappointment was shortly dismissed, at least for the fans. Jonas Brøndberg took a slashing penalty on a forechecking Daylan Kuefler; on the ensuing faceoff, Johnny Ludvig slashed Ryan Hughes’ stick into two pieces, creating a 5-on-3 for 1:57 halfway through the opening period.
Connor Zary then took it upon himself to make it rain in a tradition that began in Kamloops in 1993.
“I looked up at the point but I shot it back at the net and tried to get lucky there — obviously not my prettiest goal, but it counted at the end of the day,” said Zary.
“That was the first big weight removed, or if we’re being honest, hundreds of them.”
It took approximately 15 minutes for players, students and staff to organize the ice surface before resuming gameplay. With 2:51 remaining in the period, Orrin Centazzo received a pass from Zary and tapped home the eventual game-winning goal.
Ryan Hughes then added the extra cushion with a power-play goal midway through the second period against his former team. Hughes, Centazzo, Zary and Zane Franklin all recorded two-point nights, but none had a bigger showing or removed a larger weight from their shoulders than Daylan Kuefler.
Playing in his 14th game of the season, Kuefler corralled the puck in the offensive zone and wired a wrist shot past Joel Hofer’s blocker, sending the Blazers bench into a frenzy. It was his first WHL goal.
Reece Newkirk’s power-play goal with 2:34 remaining in the game put an end to Dylan Garand’s shutout bid. While the 17-year-old goaltender from Victoria played a nearly flawless game in the Blazers crease, the player-of-the-game jacket and evening as a whole belonged to Kuefler.
“You know what,” Franklin added post-game, “I think that’s probably the best reaction we’ve had on the bench all year. Kuefs, I can’t say enough good things about that guy.”
The captain’s sentiments were echoed by Blazers head coach Shaun Clouston.
“The guys were really excited. He’s a tremendously hard worker. Our young players are really starting to play well. They’re getting more comfortable in the league, and they’re understanding what we’re trying to do as a team, and they’re contributing right now.”
While Kamloops’ top line did much of the heavy lifting on Saturday, Kuefler’s first WHL goal and Ethan Brandwood’s first WHL point were welcome additions to a team that has relied quite heavily on its veterans.
After sending defenceman Luke Zazula to the Tri-city Americans this past week, Ethan Brandwood has been the beneficiary of more playing time — something that Clouston believes the rookie is getting accustomed to.
“He’s getting the feel of how to be a regular, everyday guy instead of in and out of the lineup all the time, and he’s responding very well and looked good tonight.”
As for the young fourth line, communication plays a strong factor for Kuefler and his cohorts. “We’re clicking. It helps a lot that there’s a lot of talk on and off the ice. We’re just working. That’s what we go in to do every game — just work our butts off.”
The Blazers now have a few days off at home before embarking on a six-game road trip that begins in Winnipeg on December 6th and concludes in Prince Albert on December 14th.