Special teams were the name of the game Tuesday night in Kamloops as the Blazers skated away with a 5-1 victory over the Kootenay Ice in Western Hockey League action at the Sandman Centre.
The host Blazers (12-9-3-0) converted twice on the man advantage, with the back-breaking marker coming on a short-handed effort from Gage Quinney midway through the second period.
“The short-handed goal is a back-breaker,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Ice, over the phone from Kamloops Tuesday night. “Our power play gets a goal in the second [period] on a real nice play and then we get another power play and it’s anemic. You’re trying to do too much with the puck individually and you give it up short-handed. That’s an absolute killer for us.”
Quinney, the 20-year-old native of Las Vegas, provided the Blazers with a 3-1 lead and put a hard stop to what was a strong push from the visiting Ice through the first half of the second period.
Sophomore defenceman Cale Fleury sparked the response with a power-play goal only 13 seconds into the period to cut into the Blazers 2-0 lead.
“I thought we had a real good push in the second,” Pierce said. “Our penalty kill was working well early, but you take too many of them — seven penalty kills is too many. Again, it’s this whole problem of making the game harder than it needs to be.”
Life for the visitors didn’t get easier from there on as the hosts added a pair of power-play goals — one in the second period from defenceman Ryan Rehill and another in the third period from captain Matt Needham — to take complete control.
By the end of the night, the Blazers had converted on two of their seven man advantages.
“Any team is going to figure out what you’re doing after they watch you kill five times,” Pierce said. “I thought our penalty kill did a heck of a job early on, but you’re using the same bodies because of the people we’re missing.”
The Blazers jumped out to a 2-0 lead before the game was 10 minutes old, as Matt Revel opened the scoring 6:54 into the affair before captain Needham doubled the advantage 41 seconds later with his first of two goals in the contest.
Though he wasn’t able to cash in, 18-year-old forward Jesse Zaharichuk — acquired from the Blazers Sunday afternoon — made his Kootenay Ice debut and provided noticeable jump each time he was sent out on the ice.
The 5-foot-8 winger rang one puck off the iron behind Blazers goaltender Connor Ingram and registered a number of other quality scoring chances, but his old teammate had his number all night long.
“Jesse is a smart kid and he’s got skill,” Pierce said. “He hits the post there — right after we make it 2-1 — on a real good 2-on-1 rush and he beats the goaltender. If that goes in, we’re looking at a totally different hockey game.
“He probably had four quality chances and those are going to start to go in for him. He’s too good of a player for that not to happen.”
Also making his Ice debut was 18-year-old forward Austin Gray — also acquired Sunday afternoon, but in a separate transaction with the Portland Winterhawks.
“He’s a smart kid and he’s got a good touch around the net as well,” Pierce said. “I saw things in him today — sticking to the plan and the structure even after just a quick chalk talk. Tough situation for them to not be able to practice with anybody.
“But they’re going to make us a better team.”
By the time the night ended, Ingram had kept both Zaharichuk and Gray off the scoresheet, turning aside 25 shots for his 10th win of the season.
At the other end of the rink, Hoflin blocked 34 shots between the pipes for the Ice.
With the first of a five-game B.C. Division road trip now in the books, the Ice (6-20-2-0) continue on to face the Kelowna Rockets (19-6-1-0) Wednesday night.
“They come at you and they come hard,” Pierce said of the Rockets. “Their forward groups are extremely talented. Their backend is talented. They play a real high-risk, high-reward style of game. We can’t afford to get into a track meet with them.
“After playing [Tuesday] we just don’t have the legs for it. We have to use our brains over brawn a little bit better and we’re going to need a hell of a performance from Wyatt Hoflin.
“We need to capitalize on some chances and be ready for a dog fight.”
Puck drop between the Ice and Rockets is slated for 8:05 p.m. (Mountain) from Prospera Place in Kelowna.
Notes: The Ice were once again without D Tyler King (knee), C Luke Philp (ankle), RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder), RW Shane Allan (serving fourth of four-game suspension), RW Zak Zborosky (lower body), RW River Beattie (head)…