It certainly wasn’t a must-win game, but the Kamloops Blazers could have made their lives slightly easier moving forward if they would have put in a full night’s effort, according to Head Coach Serge Lajoie.
The Kelowna Rockets controlled the play for the opening two frames and skated to a 4-1 win over the Blazers Saturday night at the Sandman Centre.
“It seems that the theme of the weekend was disappointment. We needed more of what we saw in the third tonight. We needed a full 60,” said Lajoie. “The players in the dressing room are recognizing that and our leadership group is reinforcing the message that we can’t wait and we got to get going right away.”
The Blazers were handling the Rockets at a 4-1-1-0 clip this year until this latest meeting.
The game was significant, considering a Blazer win would have brought them within two points of the Rockets for the third spot in the division, but now they sit six points back with 16 games remaining.
The Rockets, who clipped the Prince George Cougars (16-31-4-2) last night in Kelowna, came out hot in the first, unlike the Blazers who dropped a home tilt to the Vancouver Giants (36-13-2-1) 24 hours previous.
The referees nearly got in the way of an early Rockets (23-26-4-1) advantage.
Finnish blue liner Lassi Thomson was the trigger on the point. His high shot handcuffed Blazer netminder Dylan Ferguson. Mark Liwiski came barreling down the wing while the puck was fluttering in the air. Liwiski bodied the puck into the net. Immediately, referee Duncan Brow waved off the goal, but upon further review, the call was reversed and the Manitoba product picked up his seventh of the season.
The Rockets could have been up 2-0 after the first frame if it wasn’t for the outstretched toe of Ferguson, who kicked out a rookie Dallon Wilton shot for one of his 15 first-period saves.
“Our best player for the last three weeks has been Dylan Ferguson. We are hoping to ride some of these performances, but we need to give him a little run support. We just haven’t been able to score goals lately,” said Lajoie.
One of the shots Lajoie would probably like to have back came later in the frame while short handed.
Connor Zary poked the puck away from a lackadaisical Thomson in the neutral zone. Dashing in on Roman Basran, Zary faked forehand and sailed a backhander inches above the top corner. Tying the game on a shorty would have riled up the 3,365 fans in attendance.
But his shot attempt missed high and the fans remained subdued. Kelowna didn’t sit back; they looked to put the game away.
In the second, the Rockets and Thomson were much more attentive on a power play.
Five seconds into a Kobe Mohr interference penalty, the Rockets won the draw and the puck came around to Thomson. He used a screen to wire his 14thof the season past Ferguson.
Missing from the action was Blazer defender Montana Onyebuchi, who was serving the second of his two-game suspension following an incident with the Rockets last week.
At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Onyebuchi would have made life a little more difficult on the Rockets and their top line centred around 2019 NHL draft prospect Nolan Foote.
He certainly would have had a chat with Foote following his point blank head shot on Ferguson in the second.
Once play finally stopped after Ferguson’s mask took a beating, he shook out the cobwebs and returned to his crease.
Without a visit from his trainer, Ferguson continued to play and badly coughed up a puck while short handed.
Blazer blue liner Jeff Faith finished his check on Leif Mattson by crunching him into the Rockets’ bench. He was labeled with a two-minute penalty to the head, much to the crowds’ dismay.
Fergsuon was looking to clear a puck up the middle to Zary when he gave up the puck to Alex Swetlikoff, who of course, found Mattson for the easy power play goal.
Frustrated, Ferguson appeared to regain his cool minutes later during the media timeout.
Once action resumed, it was Mattson again who streaked down the right wing as the trailer. Foote dotted him with a pass and there was nothing between him and the twine. That is, until Ferguson made a diving glove save, snagging the puck out of thin air — something he has done a few times as of late.
“We really needed that save,” said Lajoie.
The Blazers (20-27-4-1) eventually scratched one across in the second.
With less than a second remaining in the middle frame, Blazer captain Jermaine Loewen showed off his coordination by backhanding a bouncing puck into the net.
Public enemy No. 1 Conner Brugen-Cate was in the box for the second of two interference calls that period. At the point, Zary zinged a shot wide right. The puck banked off the end boards and bounced to Loewen, whose back was to the bouncing biscuit. In his periphery, he saw enough rubber to make a swat at it with time ticking down. The power play marker gave him 20 on the season.
Meanwhile, the crowd was all over Brugen-Cate every time the touched the puck.
Brugen-Cate was given the same two-game suspension as Onyebuchi, but made his return to the lineup against the team he earned the suspension against.
Each rush up the ice with the puck, boos rained down on him, only to be disrupted by a chorus of cheers both times he marched to the box.
With all the talk still going on around these two teams for the incident one week ago, the Blazers did not hold any grudges against Brugen-Cate.
“I’m really proud of how our team reacted and we stayed focused on playing the game hard,” said Lajoie. “There was no need for retribution on our end.”
The Blazers finally cranked up the heat in the third when they outshot the Rockets 11-6 (but were outshot 34-26 in total), which coincidentally coincided with increased ice time for local kid Logan Stankoven.
Appearing in his seventh game of his 15-year-old season, Stankoven didn’t factor in the scoring, but he might have had the most impressive shift of his young WHL career.
Fighting for anything late, Stankoven went into the corner three separate times on the same shift against bigger, older defenders and came out with the puck. He might not have a WHL goal underneath his belt — which might feel like an eternity for him if you check out his midget stats — but it certainly not due to a lack of effort, strength or smarts.
The Blazers won’t have long to hit the reset button, as another BC Division game awaits them Wednesday night back at the Sandman Centre against the Victoria Royals (27-22-1-2).
These aren’t must-win games yet, but if the Blazers keep marching down the path they are currently on, the must-win games will be here before anyone in the organization wants them to be.