Another gobsmacking upset seems less likely to materialize after what transpired on Friday in WHL playoff action at Sandman Centre.
The Kamloops Blazers appear to have avoided a championship-aspiration-crippling injury in a 3-1 victory over the walking-wounded Vancouver Giants in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series.
Vancouver, the No. 8 seed that knocked off No. 1 Everett in Round 1, added two more players — defenceman Mazden Leslie and forward Colton Langkow — to the infirmary on Friday.
"We’ve got five regular forwards out that are top-nine guys for us, but they were out for the entire Everett series, so we’ve had guys step up and we are going to have to have young guys step up again tomorrow,” said Giants’ head coach Michael Dyck, whose club finished 46 points behind the Blazers in regular-season standings.
Kamloops was the better team in the opening frame and racked up scoring chances while Vancouver struggled to find rhythm, stifling its own rushes by going offside and doing little to test Blazers’ netminder Dylan Garand.
“We just wanted to not give them any space,” said Ethan Brandwood, who, along with defence partner Quinn Schmiemann, did an admirable job keeping tabs on the Giants’ deadly top line of Fabian Lysell, Zack Ostapchuk and Adam Hall.
“Those players are great when they have some room to wheel around and find each other. It’s going to be key for us to stay on our man and give them no life to breathe.”
The Giants’ goaltender, Vegas Golden Knights’ prospect Jesper Vikman, was impressive in the opening stanza, his best work coming on a 2-on-1, when he moved quickly to his left to foil Vancouver Canucks’ prospect Viktor Persson.
Both head coaches trumpeted the value of discipline during interviews earlier this week, acknowledging the importance of controlled aggression in a series that promises to be antagonistic, but lacked playoff-level heat in Game 1.
“I think it’s going to get more physical,” Dyck said. “It was probably more of a feeling-out game.”
The Giants made the first mistake and it was costly.
Defenceman Damian Palmieri hacked at Drew Englot’s back in the corner and seemed to be getting away with the lumber work, but officials eventually ran out of patience and he was called for cross-checking.
Minnesota Wild prospect Caedan Bankier promptly scored on the power play to put the home team up 1-0 at 18:28 of the first period, the marker extending his point streak to 15 games.
“They took advantage of their opportunities,” Dyck said. “We didn’t.”
Kamloops finished 1-for-3 on the power play. Vancouver was 0-for-3.
“Our goalie was really good. We got one on the power play. Other than that, it’s a pretty even game,” Blazers' head coach Shaun Clouston said.
Garand made 30 saves to pick up his fifth consecutive post-season victory. Vikman stopped 35 shots in defeat.
Neither team escaped the opening period devoid of injury concern.
Kamloops’ top-line danger man Luke Toporowski — who had five goals and 10 points in a Round 1 sweep of his former team, the Spokane Chiefs — tripped over Vikman on a partial break and slid hard into the boards, unable to get to his feet while he clutched at his left shoulder.
Blazers’ trainer Colin (Toledo) Robinson tended to Toporowski, who eventually skated to the bench without help, but was still favouring his limp-looking left arm when he ambled to the dressing room.
"He’s sore. We’ll know more probably tomorrow morning than we know right now,” Clouston said. “I don’t think [it's long-term]. He’s sore. It's precautionary. I'm sure the doctors will want to take a look at him and see how he feels in the morning."
Meanwhile, on the same shift, Leslie was hurt and could not leave the ice without support from teammates, unable to put weight on his right foot.
"Losing Maz is a hit back there," Giants associate coach Keith McCambridge told Sportsnet 650. “Hopefully, it’s not too long term. It looks like he won’t be back next game. We’re hoping that it’s only two games and then get him back in the series here.”
The Blazers, who were 10-1-1 against the Giants in the regular season, took control of the contest in the second period.
Kamloops product Dylan Sydor found Bankier in stride and he dished to Reese Belton, who wired a shot past Vikman at 2:43 to give the Blazers a two-goal cushion.
Belton’s first of the post-season preceded another dose of depth scoring — Ethan Rowland’s first goal for the Blazers in his 18th game with the club.
Rowland, who was traded to Kamloops from Red Deer in January, was positioned well in front of the net to steer home a rebound that resulted from a Logan Stankoven shot.
"It felt awesome,” Rowland said. “I feel like I've had a monkey on my back. It was a good play by Stanks and kind of a lucky bounce off my shinpad and in."
Rowland suffered a shoulder injury in October and was still recovering when shipped to Kamloops in January.
“My collar bone almost pierced out of my skin,” said Rowland, who made his Blazers’ debut on March 2.
Added Clouston: “To see one finally go in, the guys were really excited for him. That was kind of a highlight. He's really well liked."
The Giants pressed in the third period and got one back a few seconds after their head coach finished berating Nathan Van Oosten during a verbal tirade the linesman will not soon forget.
Dyck did not think Van Oosten did his job properly, so he told him as much — at close range and with great vigour.
Hall continued his fantastic post-season by deflecting in a Palmieri point shot at 7:04 of the third period, his eighth goal of the playoffs coming in a losing effort.
Game 2 is slated to get underway at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Sandman Centre.
“We liked our third period better than our second period,” Dyck said. “It’s certainly something to build on for tomorrow.”
The Blazers expect to know more on Toporowski’s status on Saturday morning.
“He's so important,” Brandwood said. “I haven’t seen him too much, but it sounds like things are good and, you know what, we could be seeing him tomorrow."