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Clouston: Intensity, togetherness will be key for Kamloops Blazers against physical, confident Vancouver Giants

Clouston: "They’re going to have some confidence in their ability to get their opponent off of their game. It’s our job to stay on our game."
K Matt Semionff celebration_1404
Matthew Seminoff and the Kamloops Blazers are aiming to avoid the same fate as the Everett Silvertips, who were dumped from the playoffs by a club they were favoured to eliminate, the Vancouver Giants.

Mats Lindgren and his Kamloops Blazers’ teammates, idle since sweeping the No. 8 seed Spokane Chiefs from the Western Hockey League playoffs on April 29, watched along with the rest of the hockey world on May 2 while the Vancouver Giants completed an astounding upset.

The Giants, the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, doubled the top seed Everett Silvertips 6-3 at Langley Events Centre, the victory clinching a 4-2 series win over a team they trailed by 47 points in final regular season standings.

“They look pretty fired up,” said Lindgren, the NHL Draft prospect defenceman from North Vancouver. “They are going to be really hungry and ready. They’re really tough and physical. That’s going to be pretty important to watch out for.”

Kamloops, the No. 2 seed that outlasted No. 1 Everett, has home-ice advantage for its remaining tenure in the Western Conference playoffs.

The Blazers and Giants will square off in Round 2, with the best-of-seven conference semifinal slated to get underway at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 6, at Sandman Centre.

Vancouver floundered through an injury-riddled, inconsistent, disappointing first half of the season and was a seller at the WHL trade deadline in January, parting ways with Florida Panthers’ prospect Justin Sourdif and veteran defenceman Tanner Brown.

The Giants dropped 11 of their final 12 regular season games and limped into the post-season, making the cut by one point to set up a first-round matchup against a championship contender.

And then the improbable happened.

Everything began to click for Vancouver, which boasts a deadly top line in first-round Boston Bruins’ draft pick Fabian Lysell, Ottawa Senators’ prospect Zack Ostapchuk and Adam Hall, who has 10 points in six playoff games, including a team-leading seven goals.

Vegas Golden Knights’ prospect goaltender Jesper Vikman and defenceman Alex Cotton, a fifth-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, have been among standouts for the Giants, who on May 2 played a Silvertips’ club that was missing Jackson Berezowski, Niko Huuhtanen and Michał Gut, the injured trio that combined to score 101 regular season goals.

“They’re very well coached,” Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston said. “They shocked the hockey world, beating Everett. Now, Everett had some injuries. That did factor into it. But what Vancouver was able to do, a big part of that comes from his [Giants’ head coach Michael Dyck] experience. They play hard. They play structured. They play with physicality and, right now, they’ve got a top line that is very dynamic. It will be really important we do a job against those guys.”

Clouston was asked about his team’s response to truculent play and referenced Game 2 of the Spokane series, a rough-and-tumble contest that featured 19 power plays, with the teams combining to rack up 86 penalty minutes.

“We were reacting to the emotion of the situation,” Clouston said. “We want to be aware and prepared that some of those things may come at us this series. They’re going to have some confidence in their ability to get their opponent off of their game. It’s our job to stay on our game. That was definitely a strength for Vancouver during that series. They are a big, physical team that will play hard. We have to be prepared for that. There’s got to be some pushback.”

Clouston said pushback can have varying forms, including playing north-south, managing the puck and looking for opportunities to initiate contact.

“You do it with intensity, togetherness,” he said. “It’s important we pick our response. We don’t have to, in that moment, retaliate, where maybe you’re putting it in the ref’s hands. It’s about being intelligent about the responses.”

Blazers’ forward Logan Stankoven, who on Tuesday was named the WHL player of the month for April, has seven goals and 13 points in four playoff games.

Against Spokane, he played alongside Luke Toporowski, who had five goals and 10 points in four games against his former team, and Drew Englot, a bruising agitator who drew the ire of the Chiefs.

The Blazers, whose depth was on display during the sweep, are healthy and boast one of the best goaltenders in major junior hockey, Dylan Garand, who posted a .75 goals-against average and .968 save perecentage in Round 1 to lead the WHL in both categories.

Kamloops, 10-1-1 against Vancouver in the regular season, is favoured to advance to the Western Conference final, but so were the Silvertips, the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed in the opening round since the WHL shifted to a 16-team post-season in 2002.

“We always knew that we were capable of some pretty special things,” Dyck told the Vancouver Province on Monday. “It was just a matter of things falling into line. There many points during the season where we wondered if that was ever going to happen.

“It felt like any time we’d start to get traction there’d be injuries or a suspension…it was one step forward, one step back. It’s finally nice to get some traction and start moving forward.”