(Kennewick, Wa.) Both the Tri-City Americans and Kelowna Rockets are in unfamiliar territory right now.
Twice over the past three seasons, the Americans have played in elimination games in Game 4 of their first round series. They were, however, the ones looking to stave off elimination.
The Kelowna Rockets on the other hand, reached the Conference Finals each of the past four seasons, going on to win the Chynoweth Cup in 2015 as WHL champions. This year, it’s the Americans who are looking to eliminate the Rockets in the first round with a sweep of the B.C. Division champions.
They came one step closer on Wednesday night, with a 5-3 victory in Kennewick to give them the commanding 3-0 series lead.
When you’re up by two in a series, coming out of the gate strong is important. Tri-City didn’t want to give Kelowna any early signs of life. The Americans did just that. Just 3:08 into the contest, the Americans got on the board. On the power play, where they have been so dangerous in this series, defenseman Juuso Välimäki picked up his first of the series. Jake Bean’s initial shot was blocked by Kelowna goaltender James Porter, but Välimäki was positioned right in front of the net and flipped the loose puck up and over Porter to give the Americans the 1-0 lead.
Just past the hallway point of the opening frame, it was the Americans fourth line that extended the lead. The checking line of Brett Clayton, and rookies Connor Bouchard and Sasha Mutala have been some of the hardest working players the whole series, and they were rewarded with some scoring at the 10:10 mark. Bouchard worked the puck behind the Kelowna net and along the boards seeing possession and trying to shake a Rockets’ defender. He did just that and was able to drive the net from Porter’s left side. His backhand attempt was blocked, but the rebound went straight to Clayton, who buried his first ever WHL postseason goal. 2-0 Americans.
Kelowna was not ready to roll over, and just twelve seconds after Clayton’s goal, the Rockets got on the board. Off the ensuing face-off, Kelowna gained possession in the neutral zone where the puck ended up on the stick of forward Carsen Twarynski, who carried into the zone and fired a laser past Tri-City goaltender Patrick Dea to cut the Americans’ lead to one. It would be the end of the scoring for the first, but not an end to the action.
Shortly after Twarynski’s scoring play, at 10:47, Kelowna forward Dillon Dube was once again at the center of a nasty play.
In Game 1, Dube was assessed a major and a game misconduct for running into Dea while driving the net. The call was controversial in that game. It was not on Wednesday evening. Americans defenseman Dylan Coghlan had just executed an outlet pass, when Dube came at him with his knee out where he made hard contact with Coghlan’s knee and sent the Tri-City defender to the ice in obvious pain. Dube was assessed his second major of the series, this one for kneeing, and his night came to an early end. Coghlan remained on the ice for quite some time, and was eventually helped to the bench where he limped slowly down the Americans tunnel.
Coghlan would return for the second period. Kelowna would once again be without one of their top players for this one. One big positive for the Rockets was that they killed off the major. Tri-City won the shot battle 9-7 in the first and carried the 2-1 lead to intermission.
Early in the second, the Americans regained their two-goal lead on the Rockets. Forward Michael Rasmussen, who has been on fire in this series, notched his fifth of the postseason at the 1:08 mark. Collecting a great cross ice pass from Isaac Johnson, Rasmussen fired it just under the pad of a sprawling Porter to put Tri-City up 3-1.
Kelowna, however, got another quick strike just 18 seconds after the Americans third goal. Forward Kole Lind picked up his third of the playoffs off a great keeper from the right circle. Lind had forward Kyle Topping to his left, faked a pass, and then fired the wrister past Dea to cut the Americans lead back to one.
At the 13:04 mark, the Americans would again jump out to a two goal lead on the strength of forward Morgan Geekie’s fifth of the series. Rasmussen carried the puck along the boards and behind Kelowna’s net where he made a great pass out to Geekie who was right in front of the Rocket’s net. Geekie collected the pass and made it count, beating Porter glove side.
At 19:06, Twarynski and Tri-City forward Maxwell James both picked up matching unsportsmanlike penalties and at the 20:00 mark, Americans forward Jordan Topping would pick up a lone roughing penalty. Kelowna would start the third with 1:07 worth of a 4-on-3 power play. They would need to convert to get back in it. Tri-City out shot Kelowna 12-8 in the middle frame.
Unfortunately for Kelowna, they were not able to convert on the power play to open the third. The Rockets did get some decent pressure in the Tri-City zone early on in the period, but Dea and the Americans defense did a great job of limiting time and space.
At 13:05 of the third, Geekie picked up his second of the night to put the Americans up by three. Once again on the power play, Rasmussen planted himself in front of Porter for the screen, and Geekie did the rest with a wrist shot from Porter’s left that the Kelowna goalie couldn’t get a good read on. It was Geekie’s third straight multi-goal game.
With time winding down, Kelowna was able to make things semi-interesting by cutting the Americans lead to two.
With Porter pulled for the extra attacker, forward Conner Bruggen-Kate picked up his first WHL postseason goal on a great shot from the slot. Kelowna had just 90 seconds to get two more.
With Twarynski and Americans defenseman Dan Gatenby already off for matching penalties, forward Nolan Yaremko took a high sticking call at the 19:38 mark. Kelowna once again pulled porter to give themselves the 5-on-3 advantage, but they were unable to get any more. Tri-City got the 5-3 final and the 3-0 series lead.
Shots in the third were 10-5 for the Rockets and 26-25 for the Americans in the game. The Americans power play was 2-for-4 putting them at 7-for-10 on the series. Kelowna did not convert on their two man-advantages. Geekie and Rasmussen are now tied for second in the WHL postseason scoring lead with ten points each. Game 4 is Thursday night, with Tri-City looking to win their first playoff series since 2012.