Martin and Pillar looking to help Blazers win a championship

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Max Martin battles with Justin Nachbaur during the Kamloops Blazers meeting with the Prince Albert Raiders in December.

It’s been a long time since the Kamloops Blazers have been in the mix for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

Since winning three Western Hockey League titles and three Memorial Cups in a four-year span from 1992 to 1995, the BC Division side has only made it to the final once as they lost to the Calgary Hitmen in 1999.

They also haven’t won a playoff series since 2013, when they made it to the Western Conference final before falling to the eventual league champion Portland Winterhawks.

After a long dry spell, the Blazers are again among the teams to watch heading into the second half as they had a 21-9-2-1 record and were in first place in the BC Division ahead of a road game with the Memorial Cup host Kelowna Rockets Friday night.

“I’ve told a few people that this team really reminds of our group in Prince Albert that won it all last year,” former Raiders blueliner Max Martin said.

“There’s a lot of depth in our lineup and we have some great depth on our defensive core to go along with some good goaltending. If we play our systems…we’re pretty hard to beat.”

Martin, who was dealt to the Blazers in early October, made his return to the Art Hauser Centre on Saturday, Dec. 14 and recorded two assists in a 4-2 triumph over the Raiders.

“I had been in the away team dressing room before during training camps, but I had never played here as a member of the visiting team,” Martin said.

“It felt a little strange but it was nice to get the win and to be greeted so nicely by the Raiders fans.”

The 20-year-old from Winnipeg leads all defenders on the Blazers in scoring with 28 points in 31 games.

He’s also tied for fifth in WHL defensive points with Kaedan Korczak of the Kelowna Rockets and Egor Zamula of the Calgary Hitmen.

“Having both Max and (overage forward) Ryan (Hughes of the Saskatoon Blades) come in has been huge for us,” Blazers forward Josh Pillar said.

“When they joined our team, they didn’t really know anybody, but they’ve really gelled with us and they’ve made a huge impact.”

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald
Josh Pillar controls the puck for the Kamloops Blazers during a Dec. 14 meeting with the Prince Albert Raiders.

The contest against the Raiders also marked Pillar’s return to the Art Hauser Centre, as he played for the Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League during the 2017-18 campaign.

“It was pretty weird to be back here and not be on the home bench,” Pillar said. “I’ve missed this rink though, as it’s a great one to play in.”

The 17-year-old from Warman, who was the 14th overall pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, is eighth in team scoring with 18 points in 33 games.

“I’m always learning out there but I’m feeling more familiar with the league this season,” said Pillar, who had 22 points in 68 games last season.

“The speed of the game is always getting faster from year to year, but I’ve been able to adjust to that.”

Sopotyk eager to return from injury

Another former Minto was unable to suit up for the Blazers during their visit to Prince Albert, as 18-year-old forward Kyrell Sopotyk is continuing to recover from a shoulder injury he suffered from a hit by Kelowna Rockets forward Pavel Novak last month.

“It’s nice to be back here but it’s definitely frustrating to be watching the game and not be able to play,” Sopotyk said.

“My rehab has been going well. I’ve been doing lots of physio and I’ve been keeping in shape by riding the bike a lot.

The Aberdeen product, who played for the Mintos from 2016 to 2018, had nine points in 16 games prior to the injury.

“I’m feeling more comfortable out there and I was really happy with how things were going before I got hurt,” said Sopotyk, who had 18 points in 64 games last year.

“We’re a really close group in the dressing room and I think that’s what has helped us get off to a great start this season.”