Blazers off to red hot start
The Kamloops Blazers are flaming hot.
The Blazers have burnt their opponents on a regular basis to this early point in the Western Hockey League season, posting eight wins without suffering a regulation-time setback. The only blip on the club’s record is a shootout loss.
Kamloops enjoyed a solid 2011-12 season, finishing third in the Western Conference with 47 wins, then sweeping Victoria 4-0 in the opening round of the playoffs before falling 4-3 to the eventual league finalist Portland Winterhawks in a best-of-seven conference semifinal.
The taste of success rubbed off on the returning players, Blazers head coach Guy Charron said on Monday at the Centrium, where his squad will face the Red Deer Rebels tonight.
“I think it’s a little bit of a result from last year,” said Charron, in reference to the Blazers’ hot start. “We’ve created something for ourselves, the players created an identity for our team and the kids are following up on how we ended the season.
“They’ve set themselves some goals. They know what it took to be successful last year and I think they’re just projecting themselves to have a good season.”
So far, so good.
The Blazers are coming off Sunday’s impressive 5-2 win over the host Calgary Hitmen, a triumph that featured a four-point performance from winger JC Lipon. The Regina native notched two goals and helped set up two others and is leading the WHL points parade with 22 (9g,13a).
Lipon plays the right side on a talented line that includes centre Colin Smith, who is second in league scoring with six goals and 18 points, and Tim Bozon, who has accumulated six goals and 13 points.
While Lipon put up some fine numbers last winter — 19 goals and 65 points — Charron admitted he didn’t necessarily see this coming.
“It’s really interesting, when you’re around junior kids long enough it’s amazing sometimes to see the growth of a young man,” said Charron. “When I first came to Kamloops (in 2010) he was a young guy and we knew he had some potential, but we didn’t expect that it would become what it is now.
“I think a lot of it is that line has created some chemistry, and for him it’s also about confidence. That line is really making each other accountable. They really help each other and all three of them want to be successful. A lot of the things they do have been created by their work ethic.”
Lipon has enjoyed the early ride and agreed with his coach that familiarity has been the key to success for the Blazers’ top-scoring offensive unit.
“Last year I got moved up to the second line with (Smith and Bozon) and played together with them for the whole season, so the chemistry is definitely there,” said Lipon.
“It’s always nice having two guys with you that you’ve played with for a while.”
The Blazers’ win at Calgary was a statement in itself, considering the Hitmen entered the game without a regulation-time loss. The Calgary penalty kill was scorched, with all five Kamloops goals coming on the power play.
“Yeah, it was definitely a nice win for us,” said Lipon. “It was back and forth and sometimes specialty teams can take over. We did that and it worked out well.”
There’s more to the Blazers than one hot line. The club is deep up front with the likes of wingers Brendan Ranford (4-9-13 in just seven games), Dylan Willick, Cole Ully and Jordan DePape, and centre Matt Needham.
“The success of our team has probably been (based on) the depth we have,” said Charron, who played 734 NHL games with Montreal, Kansas City, Washington and Detroit and served as an assistant coach with three NHL teams over 12 seasons.
“Any time the opposition can only focus on one or two individuals or a particular line, it makes it tough for them. I think it’s a luxury to have two or three lines that can produce. Looking at this season, perhaps people would say we have a very top line, but I’d say we have the potential of having three lines that can produce and a fourth line that can generate the tempo and effort we’re looking for.”
While the Blazers lead the WHL in goals scored with 41, they have surrendered only 19, a league low.
“My philosophy as a coach, and I’ve been around quite a few years, is you win championships and do things right when you commit yourself defensively,” said Charron. “As much as we knew of the offensive ability our team had, our focus has never changed.
“When we don’t play good defence it’s brought to the players’ attention. To me, defensive hockey is about effort. When you have talent and the talent doesn’t work hard, you’re going to have a tougher time. When your talent works hard offensively and defensively then you have the chemistry of a good hockey club.”