In-the-know fans of the Kamloops Blazers entered Sandman Centre on Friday with tempered expectations.
The Portland Winterhawks made sure those spectators did not leave pleasantly surprised and celebrating victory to jumpstart Memorial Cup-hosting season.
Dante Giannuzzi recorded a 24-save shutout for the Winterhawks in a 3-0 win over the Blazers, whose opening-night performance was dulled by the absence of six NHL camp attendees — forwards Logan Stankoven, Caedan Bankier, Matthew Seminoff, Fraser Minten and Daylan Kuefler and defenceman Kyle Masters.
“I thought the third period was pretty good,” Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston said. “We finally kind of simplified things, got on the same page as a group and got the game going a little bit in the right direction.
“We weren’t where we needed to be in the first two periods.”
Eight players in the Blazers’ lineup entered the contest with seven or fewer games of WHL experience, including debutants Conner Radke, Aapo Sarell, Rylan Pearce and Nathan Behm.
Radke said it took a few shifts to settle in, harness adrenaline, brush aside the thrill of skating in front of a major junior crowd and focus in on playing his game.
“It’s unreal,” Radke said of making his debut in front of an announced crowd of 4,485. “The adrenaline was rushing. All the fans in the building are awesome. Tough outcome, but fun to get the first one over with. It took a couple shifts and then I was feeling good, starting to play my game a little more.”
Portland took a 1-0 lead one minute and 34 seconds into the opening frame, with Gabe Klassen tallying on the power play, capitalizing on a deft cross-ice feed from Jack O’Brien.
Dylan Ernst, who had no chance on the opening goal, was a bright spot for Kamloops and turned aside 35 shots in a losing effort.
“That was a positive, some real good goaltending tonight that gave us a chance to hang around,” Clouston said.
Marcus Ngyuen used a screen to solve Ernst in the second period and Klassen pounced on a juicy rebound at 17:14 of the third period to ice the game for Portland, which was without NHL camp attendees Ryan McCleary, James Stefan and Marek Alscher.
“You have to believe that if you play the right way and play a team game, you can have success,” Clouston said. “Maybe some of the younger guys and maybe the older guys, too, it took them a bit to get to that point where they really went after it as a group.”
Kamloops, which was 0-for-5 on the power play, will play next against the hometown Spokane Chiefs on Oct. 1.
Portland, which scored on its only power-play attempt, is slated to square off against the Rockets on Saturday in Kelowna.
The Blazers’ lineup will look drastically different during their next home contest, which is slated for Oct. 7, when the Victoria Royals come to town.
“We’ll watch the game and evaluate and identify some areas we just have to get better,” Clouston said. “It’s not easy, right? This is the first game for a lot of guys.”