KAMLOOPS — With just two playoff spots remaining the WHL’s Western Conference the Kamloops Blazers have an uphill battle ahead of them, as they trail both the Seattle Thunderbirds and the Kelowna Rockets by seven points with just six games remaining.
While the Blazers fate could be sealed after this weekend, there have been some bright spots for the club down the stretch, including the play of a pair of Saskatchewan boys who have impressed the coach, and laid a foundation for future success.
Late in last Saturday’s loss to the Vancouver Giants, and head coach Serge Lajoie shuffled the lines for the Kamloops Blazers. One of the new combinations he found seemed to please the Blazers bench boss.
“We got a glimpse into the future of what Blazer hockey could look like with Zary, Pillar, and Sopotyk,” Lajoie said after the game. “I call ‘em the kids - Sopo and Pils - and as you can see, they’re three guys that want the puck, that hunt the puck, that can do stuff with the puck. I thought they brought energy to our bench and it was good to see.”
The move was a promotion for Josh Pillar and Kyrell Sopotyk, a pair of first-year forwards who have been grinding out more ice time for themselves down the stretch. There’s a comfort level between the two players, who came up through the Saskatchewan midget ranks together.
“We’ve played with each other for about six years now,” Pillar told CFJC Today. “So obviously, we’ve built that [relationship] over time.”
“It definitely makes it easier,” Sopotyk said. “We’ve been buddies, we hang out at the rink, and then the same - on and off the ice.”
Pillar, who is in his 16-year-old year, has 6 goals and 11 assists, while 17-year-old Sopotyk has 10 goals and 4 assists; both Pillar and Sopotyk feel with a little puck luck, those point totals could be higher.
“It’s definitely frustrating, but you’ve got to stay positive and move forward,” Sopotyk said. “Next time you get those chances you’ve got to finish on them. You definitely got to stay positive.”
“It can get frustrating at times, but we know we’re young players,” Pillar said. “There’s lots of time to come and there’s still some games left, so we know that it’ll come eventually.”
Lajoie says both players have earned every second of ice time they get, through their attitude and habits in practice.
“They’re workers, they’re receptive, open to coaching, they earn everything that they get,” Lajoie said. “I always say that the habits you develop in practice, they reveal themselves in games. What you see on the ice during a game is how they practice, and that’s what I really like about them.”
And while individual success is nice, both players hope their on-ice contributions help push the Blazers into the WHL Playoff picture.
“Everyone knows it’s a big push here,” Sopotyk said. “It’s coming down to the last games, so it’s the nitty-gritty time.”
“It’s pretty much do or die at this point,” Pillar said. “We almost have to win every game to just give ourselves every opportunity to make playoffs.”
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