By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Ron Wilson on Friday evening.
The Kamloops Blazers and Kelowna Rockets went ahead and played anyway. The Blazers may wish they hadn’t.
On a night when a victory would have allowed them to clinch first place in the WHL’s B.C. Division, the Blazers absorbed a 6-3 beating from the Rockets at Interior Savings Centre.
“How did we lose that one?” wondered Kamloops right-winger Jordan DePape. “We have to be prepared to play.”
The Blazers were completely dominant for the game’s first two minutes. The owned the puck and were all over the Rockets’ defenders.
However, Brett Bulmer, at 2:22, and Shane McColgan, at 3:11, scored on two of the Rockets’ first three shots and that terrific start, albeit a scoreless one, was all for naught because the visitors now had all the momentum.
“We focus on their key guys,” Kamloops head coach Guy Charron said, “and they only have two players we have to worry about, McColgan and Bulmer. They had two goals each.
“Why would we allow one of their top players . . . both of their first goals were right from the slot. They have to be contested. People on the ice, we tell them, ‘Know who you’re playing against.’ ”
Things only got worse for the Blazers late in the period, after DePape went off for tripping. During the power play, the Rockets were guilty of a sloppy line change and had too many men on the ice, but the officials chose not to call it.
“We yelled about it and it wasn’t called,” Charron said, with a shrug of his shoulders.
Moments later, forward Cody Chikie banged a rebound past Cole Cheveldave and the Rockets had three goals on seven shots, which was enough to end the goaltender’s night.
Cam Lanigan came on in relief and, at 8:19 of the second, was beaten by defenceman Madison Bowey on a shot from the point.
“The fourth goal was an awful goal . . . it’s just an awful goal,” Charron said. “Instead of being down 3-0, it’s 4-0.”
And school was out. The Blazers had erased a 4-1 deficit in beating the Rockets 5-4 in overtime here on Feb. 10, but it was apparent that wasn’t going to happen this time.
The Rockets were much tougher in their zone and their defencemen were shot-blocking machines; by game’s end, the Rockets, led by defenceman Mitchell Chapman, had blocked 26 shots, while the Blazers had gotten in front of only three.
“I thought we had a lot of good shot blocks out there,” said Kelowna goaltender Adam Brown, who won his 20th game with a 43-save effort. “We were very good in the (defensive) zone. A lot of (Kamloops’ shots) were from the outside so the guys really helped me out there. Overall, I thought we had a really good outing.”
Brown, 20, is in his final season and his record of 20-22-4 pretty much mirrors the Rockets’ season. But he was solid in this one.
“It was one of those games where a lot of pucks seemed to be hitting me,” said Brown, the son of Vancouver Canucks assistant coach Newell Brown. “I was reading the play and reacting off shots well. It was one of those games where everything seemed to hit me.”
“He might not have had to make exceptional saves,” said Charron, whose team outchanced the visitors 25-13, “but he made saves.”
The Rockets took that 4-0 lead into the third period, where Brandon Herrod and Aspen Sterzer scored at 7:53 and 11:11 respectively, providing a bit of hope to the home fans.
But it all was dashed when McColgan restored a three-goal Kelowna lead at 13:53 with his 17th goal of the season.
DePape, who had been out since Oct. 10 with a shoulder injury, banged in a rebound at 19:00, and Bulmer, who has 31 goals, finished it with an empty-netter at 19:40.
“Did our team quit? Absolutely not,” Charron said. “We didn’t quit. But we didn’t get what we needed, which was a couple of saves early.”
The Blazers, who have lost four of their last seven games overall and four of their last five at home, hope to get things back on track tonight in the rematch in Kelowna.
“Right now,” Charron allowed, “there is part of our game that is not in place.”
The Rockets, who scored their first five goals on just 17 shots, clinched a playoff spot with the victory. They will finish sixth in the Western Conference and will meet the U.S. Division’s second-place team, either the Portland Winterhawks or Tri-City Americans, in the first round.
“It’s been a process for us this season and I think tonight was a step in the right direction,” Brown said. “We just need to build off that for (tonight).
“Our mindset was more looking at the end of the season and the playoffs and focusing on that and the way we need to be playing going into the postseason.”
The Blazers, meanwhile, will play in Kelowna tonight and will once again attempt to clinch their first B.C. Division title since 2001-02. Kamloops (44-17-4) has 92 points and holds a 16-point lead over the second-place Vancouver Giants (36-23-4), who lost 6-4 to the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers last night and have eight games remaining.
JUST NOTES: Attendance was 5,227, the largest crowd of the season. Cameron Hughes, a sports entertainer based in Ottawa, kept the crowd entertained. . . . The Rockets were 2-4 on the power play, while the Blazers went 0-7. . . . The Blazers lead the season series with the Rockets, 5-1-1, going into tonight’s finale. . . . The Daily News Three Stars: 1. Brown: Steady as he goes; 2. Bowey: scores, blocks shots; 3. Bulmer: Two goals and even blocked a shot. . . . F Brock Nixon of the Calgary Dinos, who played 286 regular-season WHL games with the Kamloops Blazers (2003-08) before being traded to the Calgary Hitmen, has been named the Canada West Husky-WHL graduate of the month. Nixon, a kinesiology major, had six points in four regular-season games last month, then was the first star in two victories as the Dinos went the distance in winning a best-of-three first-round series from the UBC Thunderbirds.
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