By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
This is the series to which Cole Cheveldave has been looking toward for a year.
Last season, when the Kamloops Blazers lost a second-round WHL playoff series to the Portland Winterhawks in seven games, Cheveldave didn’t play even one minute of the last six games.
The Blazers’ goaltender had been run over by Portland forward Oliver Gabriel late in the first game. The resulting concussion kept Cheveldave out of the remainder of the series.
But with the teams set to begin the Western Conference’s best-of-seven final with games in Portland on Friday and Saturday, Cheveldave feels he’s ready.
“I think I have progressed through these playoffs,” Cheveldave said following practice at Interior Savings Centre on Monday. “Hopefully, this will be my best series.”
Cheveldave, who won’t be at practice today as he attends a funeral, got progressively better as the Blazers ousted the Victoria Royals from a first-round series in six games.
The Blazers then swept the Kelowna Rockets from a series in which Cheveldave very well may have been the MVP.
Right now, then, he feels that he is close to being right on top of his game.
“You get in a groove and you feel comfortable,” the 19-year-old sophomore from Calgary said. “That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m really comfortable in the net.”
And, he admitted, being comfortable leads to a boost in confidence.
Cheveldave, who is 8-2, 2.60, .895, in these playoffs, knows that if the Blazers are to advance, he will have to be good. That’s because his counterpart, Mac Carruth, is rolling.
Carruth, the winningest playoff goaltender in WHL history, also is 8-2 this spring. He has a 1.74 GAA and a .925 save percentage. And he put up two shutouts in Portland’s four-game second-round sweep of the Spokane Chiefs.
Cheveldave also is well aware that Portland was the WHL’s top offensive team in the regular season and No. 2 on defence.
“They’re very offensive,” Cheveldave said. “They capitalize on their chances, so I have to be there for my team and come up with key saves.”
There is good news for Cheveldave and Co., in that centre Colin Smith is set to return after missing the last three games of the Kelowna series with a suspected concussion. Smith, who was injured on April 6, is back to taking part in full practice sessions.
“He’s a huge part of our team,” Cheveldave said of Smith, who led the Blazers with 106 points in the regular season. “The boys really came together last week when we lost him. It’s just another asset on our team going into this next round.”
Cheveldave also is of the opinion that he and his mates learned a lot in the seven-game loss to Portland last spring. In that series, the Blazers lost the first three games and were trailing 4-0 in Game 4, only to roar back and take the Winterhawks the distance.
“(We learned) that we can’t quit and that we have a chance in every game,” Cheveldave said. “The more we push the harder it is for the other team.
“That’s the way we were. We weren’t going to give up on it. We knew we were fighting for our lives. That’s the motivation that we had . . . fighting for our lives. We played every game as though it was our last game.”
That series, he said, also brought the players closer together and that closeness continues to live in the Kamloops dressing room.
“We were really tight at the end,” the goaltender stated. “Everyone was pushing everybody. There weren’t any negative vibes.
“Everybody was pushing and everybody loved everybody.”
JUST NOTES: Games 3 and 4 will be played at Interior Savings Centre on April 23 and 24. . . . Blazers F Tim Bozon (hand) skated in full gear on Monday for the first time since being injured March 26. He was wearing a non-contact yellow sweater. . . . G Liam McLeod, a ninth-round selection by the Blazers in the 2011 bantam draft, has joined the team in practice. McLeod, from Kamloops, played this season with the BCHL’s Prince George Spruce Kings. . . . Chances are that there will be crowds of 10,000 for Games 1 and 2. The Winterhawks are leading the WHL in playoff attendance, with an average of 8,786. That’s more than 1,500 ahead of the Edmonton Oil Kings (7,152).
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