The Kamloops Blazers may have been gripping their sticks too tight all night, but with a minute left, Connor Zary had the soft touch needed to stuff home a rebound and tie things up.
Sure, the Prince George Cougars would go on to win the game 5-4 in overtime on Vladislav Mikhalchuk's second goal of the night. But that result isn't all that disappointing after the Kelowna Rockets fell 2-1 in regulation, putting them and the Blazers even at 62 points heading into the final game of the year.
"We gave them a couple of gifts in the third period and those might have been errors out of wanting it so bad and being a little nervous," says head coach Serge Lajoie. "We can't have those mistakes tomorrow, but to speak of the resiliency of our team, it's nice to see them fight right to the end. I thought we had the better of the chances in overtime, but that's what happens. We're very proud of our guys that they didn't quit."
Heading into the game, Kamloops was 6-0-1 against Prince George this year and had outscored them 25-11.
No wonder there was a stunned silence across the Sandman Centre after Mike MacLean stepped out of the penalty box, intercepted a pass intended for Luke Zazula, raced down the ice and roofed a missile over Dylan Garand to make it 4-2 Cougars midway through the third period. Prince George scored three unanswered goals in the final period and looked to be spoiling Kamloops last home game of the regular season.
Before tonight, the Blazers hadn't trailed in any game since their March 6 loss to the Giants. But with their season on the line, this team whose playoff chances looked dead just one week ago kicked back again. Kyrell Spoptyk potted one on the power play to give the team life. Then, with Garand on the bench, Zary pounced on a Zane Franklin rebound with 55 seconds remaining to secure the crucial point for the Blazers.
In all the excitement, forgot to mention the Blazers lost 5-4 in OT. However Kelowna just lost as well in regulation. That means the Blazers and Rockets are tied heading into the final game of the season!— Kamloops Matters (@KamloopsMatters) March 16, 2019
The Cougars got their 3-2 lead on a bit of a fluky goal when Josh Curtis banked one off Garand's back in behind the Kamloops net. He also fed Mikhalchuk out front, who beat a stretched out Garand to tie things up in that third frame.
Prince George outshot Kamloops in the second, but Ryley Appelt got the only goal in that period. Kobe Mohr had Kamloops first goal while Rhett Rhinehart opened the scoring for the Cougars.
As usual, when these teams meet, it was a scrappy affair. Every whistle was another opportunity to get a glove in someone's face and both sides took advantage. Tensions finally boiled over in the second and Montana Onyebuchi dropped the gloves with MacLean, before dropping MacLean with a right hook.
Garand stopped 24 of 29 shots while Taylor Gauthier turned away 26 of 30 shot for Prince George.
Before the game, plenty of honours were doled out, including a special moment for the graduating overage players: Jeff Faith, the injured Dylan Ferguson and fan favourite Jermaine Loewen. "J-Train" registered an assist in his final home game and nearly ended things in overtime.
Blazers honour OAs Jermaine Loewen, Jeff Faith and Dylan Ferguson before the game. #Kamloops hoping this isn’t the last time the see em. Wins over Prince George and a Kelowna loss this weekend means season will continue. Puck drop next. pic.twitter.com/IAtr6yW3Fv— Kamloops Matters (@KamloopsMatters) March 16, 2019
"What a warrior. The guy basically has a 'Boys, I'll put you on my back, just follow my lead' approach," says Lajoie. "Very proud of how he's handled himself. It would have been so fitting to see him score that overtime goal but just the way he's played here in out push to make the playoffs is inspiring. The fans in Kamloops have been witness to his growth and development and to see him play his last regular season game – I'll put it that way – it was a good one."
Kamloops will head to Prince George tomorrow (March 16) for the final game of the year, likely needing one more win to keep this miracle run going. The Vancouver Giants clinched first place in the Western Conference with their win over the Rockets tonight, so they have nothing to play for tomorrow in Kelowna.
Puck drop in Prince George is at 7 p.m.