Monday, February 13, 2012

40 WIns and Closing in on BC Division Title

At times, it's hard to imagine how things could be better with this club right now...of course no one wants to say it...the hockey gods are always listening, and fortunes can turn in an instant. 

The Blazers became the first team in the WHL to reach 40 wins. It came in Kelowna with a hard-fought 3-2 win over the Rockets to sweep the weekend home-and-home set.  The win summed up how the Blazers have won games this season: they simply found a way.  Many times last season they lost a game like that.  It seems when the game is on the line, the Blazers are playing their best hockey.

Blazers Head Coach Guy Charron talked about hitting the 40 win mark in our post-game show following Saturday's 3-2 win in Kelowna.

Aside from the odd grin or smile, the Blazer coaching staff and management haven't done much to acknowledge their success this season.  They aren't basking in the turnaround or marvelling in the team's success.  The attitude has been one day at a time, one game at a time...and the players have bought in.

The players are somewhat subdued after victories this season, a quiet confidence.  It's an expectation with this group.  It's been the people outside the organization, fans, and the media that have gone to the well a few times with a "can you believe this?" but you won't really sense that tone within the walls of the dressing room, on the bus, or while sitting down at nice restaurant for the post-game meal.

This season has been compared a lot to the 98/99 campaign - the last time the Blazers had this type of regular season success.  It took that team guided by Mark Habscheid until February 20th to pick up win #40.  However, those were the days when ties actually existed and that team kissed their sister a lot that year.  They had 11 draws at that point and went to have 13 ties in a 48-11-13 season.

That year the Blazers swept through the Western Conference playoffs before running into Pavel Brendl, Brad Moran of the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL Championship. 

In order to have a season like this you need to be a good team, but you need some surprises and some good luck along the way.  The Blazers have had their fair share. Here's a few examples:

- Who would've thought F Tim Bozon would come in and have the rookie season he's having? He's tied for the lead in rookie scoring with 27 goals, 29 assists for 56 points.  He's playing like a veteran and is easily the Blazers most dangerous and impacting import since Juuso Puustinen in the 2006/07 rookie season.

- G Cole Cheveldave has been another welcomed surprise.  Late last season, he was this goalie in Drumheller who "could come in next year and make this team...maybe push for the starting job".  I think he's exceeded expectations to the point where he's getting WHL rookie of the year consideration along with Bozon.  It would be back-to-back rookie of the year honours after he won that award in the AJHL last season.  His 35 save performance in Kelowna Saturday night was another game adding to his impressive rookie season resume.

- JC Lipon.  A little confidence goes a long way.  After scoring three goals and adding 18 assists last season as a 17 year-old, Lipon has been thrusted into the spotlight on one of the most dominating lines in the Western Conference this year along with Tim Bozon and centerman Colin Smith.  Lipon's 52 points and knack for timely goals has him as a key contributor to this year's club.  It was nice to see him get a little bit of respect for most improved player in Annie Fowler's annual "Best of the West" poll.

- Injury/Suspension free.  Other than F Jordan DePape's four month departure for shoulder surgery, the Blazers have been a relatively healthy bunch this season (knock on wood).  They haven't really seen that rash of injuries that has them playing under the minimum or forced into tough situations.  It could still happen, but the depth of the team has been able to cover so far this season.  The Blazers were also the most suspended team last season.  A lone suspension to Josh Caron before he was traded to Everett is the only one on the WHL books this season.

There's other players who have found their game this season, and have made that natural progression with another year's experience.  Guys like Tyler Hansen, Bronson Maschmeyer, Marek Hrbas and Landon Cross on the back-end.  Up front Colin Smith has had a coming of age and rookies Cole Ully and Aspen Sterzer have found ways to contribute. 

It really has all the ingredients of a championship team...except without the battle hardened playoff experience.  This group doesn't have that.  They don't have players who have been through that grind.  Captain Chase Schaber leads the way with 30 playoff games - 26 of them with the Calgary Hitmen where he played a much lesser role as a first and second year player.  In those 30 playoff games, he's never scored a goal. 

We'll see how the last chapter of the regular season unfolds with 16 games to play.  I like where the Blazers have been, where they are and where they're headed, but the road is long and unpredictable.