When the WHL’s regular season wraps up in two weeks, the Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers just might look back at Friday’s game as the one that made the difference.
The Rockets came into the Sandman Centre knowing that they were 29-9-3 in the last 41 regular-season games with Kamloops, including 5-0-0 this season.
But things didn’t go smoothly for the visitors, as they, like a few teams before them, weren’t able to solve the mystery of
Kamloops goaltender Connor Ingram often enough to escape with a victory.
With Ingram turning aside 53 shots, the Blazers posted a 3-2 victory, one that may well end up launching them into the playoffs and, at the same time, costing the Rockets first place in the overall standings.
First, the Blazers . . .
The victory improved their record to 31-25-9. With seven games remaining, five of them on the road, they are in possession of the 10-team Western Conference’s first wild-card spot, two points ahead of the Spokane Chiefs. At the same time, the Blazers are fourth in the B.C. Division, now just three points behind the Prince George Cougars, who dropped a 3-2 decision to the visiting Chiefs last night.
At the same time, the Tri-City Americans lost 5-3 to the host Portland Winterhawks. The Americans now are eight points behind Kamloops and six in arrears of Spokane, which holds down the second wild-card spot.
“It’s just get into the playoffs and whatever it is, it is,” Ingram said of the Blazers’ mindset in the stretch run. “Once we get there we’ll think about it. Until we get there, nothing is for certain.”
Now, the Rockets . . .
Kelowna (44-17-3), which is gunning for an unheard of fourth straight 50-victory season, fell three points behind the Victoria Royals in the race for first place in the overall standings. The Royals pulled ahead with a 5-1 victory over the Giants in Vancouver.
Kelowna, however, has eight games remaining, while the Royals have yet to play just six. Tonight, while the Blazers and Rockets stage a rematch in Kelowna, the Giants will be in Victoria.
Ingram, if you were wondering, may well be back in goal tonight. Don Hay, the Blazers’ head coach, initially said Ingram would start, but then said he would “sleep on it.”
If Ingram does start, it would be for the 56th time in 66 games. Asked when he gets tired, Ingram replied: “When I go to bed at night.”
He certainly didn’t show any fatigue before bed-time last night.
“We got outplayed,” Hay said. “The best player on the ice was our goalie. Sometimes he’s going to steal games and he stole the game, no doubt about it.”
Ingram stopped 16, 18 and 19 shots by period, as he improved his record to 28-15-9. Ingram didn’t feel his night was that hectic, primarily because most of Kelowna’s shots came from the outside. The Rockets felt they had only 10 scoring chances.
“It was a very easy night for Connor Ingram despite facing so many shots,” Kelowna assistant coach Travis Crickard told Kelowna radio station AM1150. “Our defencemen were able to get a lot of shots through, but our forwards weren’t going hard to the net and weren’t there for rebounds, or for traffic.”
Left-winger Jermaine Loewen, who finished off a 5-0 victory over visiting Spokane on Wednesday with a terrific goal, got the Blazers started against Kelowna, busting down the wing and snapping a shot past goaltender Michael Herringer at 2:25 of the first period.
At one point in the first period, the Blazers held a 6-1 edge in shots. However, the Rockets were ahead 16-7 when the buzzer sounded.
“We got off to a real good start,” Hay said. “We played really well for the first five minutes. Then Kelowna started coming.”
The Rockets got that one back at 1:24 of the second period as left-winger Tomas Soustal somehow got the puck through Ingram from a bad angle.
Then, at 5:07, the Blazers broke out 4-on-2, with defenceman Ryan Rehill in the rush with forwards Quinn Benjafield, Jiri Smejkal and Nick Chyzowski. All four touched the puck before Chyzowski scored into the wide open side for a 2-1 lead.
The home side got some insurance at 15:57 when centre Garrett Pilon followed the play and scored on a rebound as right-winger Deven Sideroff, who was the best skater on the ice in this one, crashed the net. In fact, the Blazers were fortunate that the net stayed on its moorings in all the commotion.
“I had a lot of speed and just took it to the net and hoped for the best,” Sideroff said.
The Rockets finally solved Ingram for a second time, this one coming at 14:11 of third period. They won a face-off in the Kamloops zone, leading to centre Justin Kirkland lobbing a shot towards the net. It somehow got through traffic and over top of Ingram, getting the Rockets to within one, at 3-2.
Despite concerted pressure at game’s end, Kelowna wasn’t able to tie it. The Rockets did come close moments before game’s end when a shot escaped from Ingram’s glove. However, right-winger Tyson Baillie, who leads the Rockets with 37 goals, couldn’t find the handle.
“I thought I had it,” Ingram said. “I turned around and it was sitting by the far post. Somebody knocked it away.”
Told that Baillie had just missed scoring, Ingram laughed and said: “That’s what he gets for making fun of me, I guess.”
This being an emotional game, it seems that Baillie and Ingram had held an earlier conversation.
“He was making fun of my weight,” the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Ingram said. “He thought there was a problem with it. I was telling him he’s a great player.”
Ingram laughed again and added: “It’s hockey out there. What happens out there, stays out there.”
While the Blazers may have been outplayed on this night, they certainly held their own in the physical part of the game. Sideroff, one of the WHL’s best and speediest skaters, was noticeable in that part of the game, too.
“I’ve been trying to pick up my physical game,” he said. “I’ve been striving for five or six hits a game for the last half of the season, just being more physical and more competitive.”
He also got into his first fight of the season when he challenged Kelowna defenceman Joe Gatenby, who had laid out left-winger Jake Kryski with a big hit at centre ice at 8:26 of the second period.
Asked if he thought it was a high hit, Sideroff said: “For sure. Jake’s my roommate and I’m going to stick up for him, no matter what.”
Kryski played one shift following the hit, then went to the dressing room and didn’t return.
“I thought it was a little high,” said Hay of the hit for which Gatenby wasn’t penalized. Hay added that the on-ice officials “thought it was a good hit. I thought it was high and I thought the elbow came up.”
Hay and general manager Stu MacGregor are expected to discuss whether to ask the WHL office for supplemental discipline, which could result in a suspension to Gatenby. Spokane did exactly that after Wednesday’s loss here, and it resulted in a suspension to Blazers centre Gage Quinney, who didn’t play last night.
The Blazers also lost defenceman Ryan Rehill after the hit on Kryski, as he and Kelowna winger Riley Stadel were ruled to have become involved in a second fight during the same stoppage of play. They were given fighting majors and game misconducts.
“Our four defencemen did a great job,” Hay said of Dallas Valentine, Ondrej Valla, Cam Reagan and Dawson Davidson. “Rehill goes out . . . they played a lot of minutes. They really competed hard.”
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 3,873. . . . The Rockets were 0-for-2 on the power play; the Blazers weren’t presented with a power-play opportunity. . . . Pilon’s goal stood up for his fifth game-winner of the season. . . . The Blazers scratched F Gage Quinney (WHL suspension), G Cole Kehler, F Spencer Bast and D Nolan Kneen. . . . The Rockets were without G Jackson Whistle, F Nick Merkley, D Gordie Ballhorn and F Tate Coughlin. . . . Whistle (hip) and Merkley (knee) won’t play again this season. . . . Herringer surrendered three goals on 18 shots but didn’t play the third period. The Rockets chose to send in Brodan Salmond, and he stopped the four shots he saw. Herringer will start tonight in the rematch. . . . Sideroff said he did incur a fighting major earlier this season against Prince George, but, he added, “that wasn’t really a scrap.” . . . The Blazers are to play their next four games on the road, starting tonight in Kelowna. Kamloops has two home games remaining — March 12 against Vancouver and March 18 against Prince George.
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