Optimism was the theme around the Kamloops Blazers heading into this season.
New general manager, new coach, a handful of new players: necessary change for an organization that had missed the playoffs in three of the last five years.
And what better way for this new era to prove it's different than the last than with a dominant win over the Blazers' most hated rival in the season-opener?
Kamloops put the boots to the Kelowna Rockets in a 4-1 win Friday night (Sept. 21) that was perhaps even more lopsided than the score suggests. The Blazers raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first period and dominated the shot total all night, finishing with 38 pucks on net to Kelowna's 26.
Coming on the heels of a season that the Blazers lost every game to the rival Rockets, this was a result that did more than fill fans with joy. It confirmed that the buzz around this team was warranted.
"I think we have a decent team all around," says Clarence Schneider, a 15-year season ticket holder. "I'm liking what I've seen from those young guys. Yeah, it's early, but I think we'll have an excellent season. I like this start, especially when it's against Kelowna."
In terms of new players making an impact, no one stood out more than Zane Franklin, who was named the first star of the night. Acquired in a trade with Lethbridge this offseason, Franklin scored the season-opening goal, assisted on another and got a 10-minute misconduct penalty after coming to the aid of his teammate Orrin Centazzo, who took a nasty shot into the boards.
"It's crazy. If I could've drawn it up perfectly, that's how it would've gone," says Franklin of his debut. "It's nice to get a win obviously, first one of the year. I'm a 100 per cent as a Blazer, so let's keep it going tomorrow."
Defenseman Sean Strange scored his first WHL goal with 20 seconds left in the first period. Brodi Stuart had a pair of goals, including a powerplay marker early in the third period that put the game out of reach. Centazzo had three assists on the night, while Stuart, Martin Lang and Nolan Kneen each had one.
"I really thought the guys came out ready," says head coach Serge Lajoie. "I think that first period was indicative of the mindset our guys have. At times, we still played some immature hockey, but you never critique a win. We'll take it, we'll move forward, but we have to be better tomorrow in certain areas."
That immature hockey came after Kamloops took their 4-0 lead and an already chippy affair got even more heated. The Blazers racked up 20 of the night's 26 penalty minutes in the third period.
Lajoie says you never critique a win, but he also knows his team can't get baited into taking penalties, even in a rivalry such as this.
"That's part of the maturity that we're going to have to demonstrate moving forward," he says. "Talking about toughness, well mental toughness is being able to just kind of turn the other cheek, play hard between the whistles and not get involved in any scrum. (Connor) Zary's a good example. There's no need for him to go and support Jermaine Loewen. I haven't seen Jermaine play very much, but I think he can handle himself. So don't put yourself in a position where you can even give the ref an opportunity to make a call. He wanted to even up the game a little bit and we gave him every opportunity. We've got to be better than that."
Zary was given a two-minute roughing penalty after coming to the defence of the 6'4" Loewen. The Blazers finished with the third most penalty minutes in the WHL last year.
But again, this is a different looking team than last year. They're bigger on the back end, with guys import defenseman Joonas Sillanpää throwing his weight around. They were efficient on the power play, going two for five on the night. And while Dylan Ferguson was great in net, he didn't have to stop many quality scoring chances.
The early diagnosis is the 2018-19 Blazers are better. And if one game is too small a sample size, they'll have another chance to prove it tonight (Sept. 22), with a rematch in Kelowna. Puck drop at Prospera Place is at 7:05 p.m.