With Cody Rich sharing the league scoring lead and team captain Mason Wade settling into fifth place, the Bellingham Blazers have climbed to the top of the Northern Pacific Hockey League standings.
More importantly, the Blazers are improving as the season goes along, just as they did a year ago.
Bellingham made its debut in the league last season and gradually climbed to third in the final standings. Then it put everything together for the playoffs and pulled out a pair of overtime wins in the final to rally from behind and take a five-game series win over the regular-season champion West Sound Warriors in the Cascade Cup final.
The Blazers and Warriors are battling again. They see each other often in a five-team league, and after West Sound had the advantage early, Bellingham has won the last four meetings during a 17-game winning streak that has improved the Blazers to 31-5-0-0.
“It’s just the process for us over the course of the season is about development,” Blazers coach Mark Collins said. “We have a few new players. We have a talented team, but early on, teams were able to take advantage of our mistakes.”
The mistakes are less common, and the support for returnees Rich and Wade is more plentiful for the Nor-Pac’s top team.
“We got some real good natural goal scorers on the team,” Collins said. “We recruited some out-of-town guys, and that has taken a little pressure off Cody and Mason.”
Ty Hubbard, from Fort Collins, Colo., was added this season and is second in scoring among Bellingham defensemen behind Scott Hansen, a holdover who joins Rich and Wade in playing for their hometown team.
Collins has coached both Rich and Wade since their Peewee days and has watched each player add to his game this season. Both are closing in on their production for all of last season. Rich leads the league in goals (41) and game-winning goals (9) and has 84 points in 35 games to share that lead with Peter Mingus of the Warriors.
“Cody has always had such a tenacity to his game,” Collins said. “The best way to describe him is relentless. He wants the puck on his stick all the time.”
Rich had eight points Jan. 25 in a game against the Vancouver Vipers, producing his second four-goal game and fourth hat trick of the season in the process.
“He has phenomenal speed flying down the right wing,” Collins said. “And, now he’s shooting the puck properly. He’s able to pick targets.”
Wade, a center, has four short-handed goals while scoring 25 goals and adding 39 assists in 32 games. Collins played Wade as a defenseman in his youth days because of his puck-rushing ability, but Wade never quite got comfortable in that role. He has continued to develop since the Tier III junior team started in Bellingham last season.
“The reason is he’s kind of understanding what’s good about his game,” Collins said. “Last year, he tried to do too much one-on-one. Now, he sees the ice better.
“He’s seeing where Cody is and is able to hit him flying up the wing. We’ve used so much more give-and-go this season. We’re a quick team. If we can get teams to turn over the puck, we can go.”
While his own game progresses, the team captain likes what he sees from the team.
“Our team is a lot more skilled this year,” he said in a story on the team website. “There are a lot of younger guys who want to move on. ... Last year, we were obviously good, too, but the chemistry is coming together sooner than last year.”
That is a bad sign for the rest of the Nor-Pac.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.