Deep Blazers burn Victoria Royals on quest for title

Not even missing Calgary Flames first-round draft pick Connor Zary to injury, and Logan Stankoven to Team Canada duty at the world U-18 championship in Texas, could stop the deep Kamloops Blazers on Monday night.

The Blazers (14-4) continued their quest for the B.C. Division title in the Western Hockey League with a 5-2 victory over the Victoria Royals at the Sandman Centre.

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It’s not the WHL championship or Memorial Cup national crown this team was built for, if these were normal times, but it’s the COVID consolation and only one on offer this year.

The result moved the Blazers eight points ahead of the Vancouver Giants with each team having four games remaining. The division championship, however, could come down to a mathematical matchup against the Kelowna Rockets (8-2-1). Since the Rockets will only play 16 games, compared to the 22 for the other four teams (down from the originally-scheduled 24), the divisional crown will be decided by winning percentage. The Blazers are at .778 to Kelowna’s .773. The Rockets were out of action 19 days last month because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team. Those games will not be made up.

The Royals (2-14-2) are guaranteed to finish last. The loss snapped a two-game blip in which Victoria earned points in a 2-1 overtime victory against the Prince George Cougars (7-7-3) and a 5-4 shootout loss to the Giants. That followed a 10-game Victoria losing streak, one short of the franchise record.

“Kamloops earned it but we were more than capable of winning this game,” said Royals GM and head coach Dan Price.

In a season refrain, the Royals again found themselves on the wrong side of the special teams equation. The Blazers went 2-5 on the power play and Victoria 1-4.

“Untimely penalties cost us again,” said Price, lamenting his team’s lack of discipline in key moments.

“We created opportunities for them. And our special teams need to be better.”

The first period concluded 1-1 on power play goals by Matthew Seminoff for Kamloops and over-ager Brandon Cutler for Victoria. The second period got off to a frenzied start. The teams split goals in the first two minutes, by Daylan Kuefler and Royals captain Tarun Fizer with his fifth, before Tye Spencer made it 3-2 for Kamloops just moments later at 2:04. Connor Levis pushed the advantage to two on the power play at 18:24. Seminoff’s second goal of the game put it out of reach in the third period.

New York Rangers prospect Dylan Garand of Langford, who with Blazers-teammate Zary won the silver medal with Canada in the 2021 world junior championship in Edmonton, made 24 saves in goal for Kamloops. Over-ager Adam Evanoff made 28 saves for the Royals.

The Royals and Blazers close out their season account on Thursday at Prospera Place in Kelowna. The Royals meet the Cougars on Saturday in Kelowna. The pandemic-abbreviated season concludes May 11 against Vancouver and May 12 against the Rockets.

“My message to the guys is there’s nothing left to save it for. Any bit of energy or effort not expended is lost forever,” said Price.

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