A microcosm of their entire season, the Kamloops Blazers were at their best at the very end, potting four third-period goals to eliminate the Kelowna Rockets 5-1 in the WHL tiebreaker game on Tuesday night (March 19).
"I'm very happy, very proud of the guys," says head coach Serge Lajoie. "I'm especially happy that the effort they put forth since the first day of training camp culminated in a win in a play-in game. That just kind of shows that we're finally getting close to how I envisioned this team would play. That third period was just relentless and we could really use that as a foundational period of how we need to play moving forward."
Kobe Mohr broke open a 1-1 tie game six minutes into the third, drifting into the slot, beating Rockets goalie Roman Basran glove side and sending the 5,876 fans at the Sandman Centre into a frenzy.
"It was awesome," said Connor Zary, who had two points on the night. "Mohrsy just cut across, ended up on his knees and that celebration kind of just pumped up our whole bench."
Nerves found their way back into the crowd after Ryley Appelt was called for a trip a few minutes later. But Kamloops' special teams didn't just kill off the penalty; they salted the game away.
First Zary stole the puck from Basran behind the net for an easy wraparound that put the Blazers up 3-1. Then Mohr got dragged down on the rush and was awarded a penalty shot, which Basran stopped. But the Rockets netminder had another misadventure playing the puck, this time leaving it for a defender who lost the foot race with Brodi Stuart, resulting in a 4-1 Kamloops lead.
"I don't think I've ever been a part of two shorthanded goals in one penalty," says Lajoie. "The only thing we told our guys was, if we have a chance to get down-ice pressure, absolutely. Our concept is we want to put pressure on the goalie if he's going to handle it. I'm glad Zary and Stuart were paying attention when we were having the (penalty kill) meeting."
Basran was pulled after that, finishing the night with 30 saves on 34 shots. James Porter stopped five shots in relief.
Jermaine Loewen would get an empty netter to seal the 5-1 victory.
"It means a lot to me," says the Blazers captain. "All the battles that we've gone through. To finally see them out of the playoffs and see us (move on) is huge. They put up a hell of an effort out there, they worked, they gave us very little. But I thought the boys worked incredibly hard today...It was a beautiful thing to see the boys giving everything they've got and I couldn't more proud of the team for how hard they battled tonight.
Jermaine seals it with the empty netter as the crowd sings goodbye. Kamloops is moving on. Kelowna’s season is over. pic.twitter.com/aT35B3NIJd— Kamloops Matters (@KamloopsMatters) March 20, 2019
"Kyrell Sopotyk opened the scoring in the second period on Kamloops' only power play of the night. After just six seconds with the man advantage, the rookie beat Basran blocker-side off a faceoff win by Zary.
A few minutes later, the goal light went off and it looked as though the Blazers were up 2-0 on a net rush by Zary before referees looked at the play and determined the net had come off well before the puck crossed the line.
Immediately after that review, Mark Liwiski scored to even things up for Kelowna, drawing the ire of the Sandman Centre.
Dylan Garand would turn away every shot after that, finishing the night with 27 saves and getting named the first star of the game. But the humble 16-year-old, who has posted a .943 save percentage over the last seven games, continued to give love to his teammates.
"They were phenomenal," says Garand. "We came out flying. We fed off the crowd. I think the shots were 10 to one at one point. They made it easy on me, blocking a lot of shots today, it was great. It's been like that for the past few weeks...They played well tonight and they deserve most of the credit."
The Blazers killed off all three penalties they took in this do-or-die game, scoring shorthanded twice.
Tonight was just the seventh tiebreaker game in WHL history. The last one came in 2016 when the Edmonton Oil Kings beat the Medicine Hat Tigers. The Oil Kings went on to lose a six-game series to the eventual champions, the Brandon Wheat Kings.
They even had fireworks! pic.twitter.com/6rwlm3VmYq— Tereza Verenca (@tverenca) March 20, 2019
The Blazers now have three days to prepare for the first round of the playoffs, where they'll face the Victoria Royals.
"The big message is, we haven't come this far just to get this far," says Lajoie. "We made the playoffs. We now have a task ahead. So we're going to enjoy this, but it's a work day tomorrow."
Game 1 goes Friday night (March 22) in the province's capital.
Tickets for the Blazers' home games March 26 and 27 go on sale tomorrow (March 20) at noon.