By DOYLE POTENTEAU
The Okanagan Saturday
So close. Oh, so close. And yet, so far, far away.
Matt Needham scored the winning goal for Kamloops, a power-play marker with 33 seconds remaining in the game, as Kamloops rallied from a 2-0 deficit with a three-goal third period to defeat the Kelowna Rockets 3-2 in WHL action on Saturday night.
It was a last-minute result that infuriated Kelowna no end, as the Rockets could have swept their season-opening, home-and-home series with their B.C. Division rivals.
Instead, they have no victories and just one point following Friday’s 6-5 overtime loss in Kamloops.
“I thought we played better (Friday night),” said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska, whose team outshot Kamloops 13-5 in Saturday’s first period, but was outshot 14-4 in the third. “I think the 11 penalties that we had to kill (on Friday) affected our energy a little bit as this game went on. But we didn’t attack the game in the third period, and that was difference.
“They came at us and we didn’t have the push that we needed to have. So that’s something we have to work on.”
Dylan Willick, at 5:23 of the third, and Brendan Ranford, at 9:38, also scored for Kamloops (2-0-0). Backup goalie Taran Kozun stopped 27 shots for the Blazers, who were without starting ’keeper Cole Cheveldave because of an undisclosed injury (possibly a knee) suffered Friday night.
Zach Franko and Filip Vasko replied for Kelowna (0-1-1), which led 1-0 and 2-0 at the period breaks. Jordon Cooke made 27 saves for the Rockets.
Forward Colton Heffley was in the penalty box, serving a roughing minor, when Needham found himself alone for a second atop Kelowna’s crease and scored, whacking home a beautiful feed from Colin Smith from a corner.
“You know what? You have to tip your hat to their goalie. He played real well,” said Smith, as slippery a forward as there is in the league. “For us, as a group, we collectively had to stay with it, and I think that’s what we did. If anything, we simplified our game, got more pucks to the net and we were able to capitalize.”
Before the weekend, and considering the considerable and justified hype surrounding Kamloops, the Rockets were in for a tough two games. Still, Kelowna pushed Kamloops hard, and it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest the Rockets could have walked away with three or four points instead of just one.
“Absolutely,” said Smith, who was by far and away Saturday’s best player. “In this league now, there’s no easy nights. Every team is going to push you and every team is capable of getting points. Both games could have went either way, but the main thing is that we came out and found a way (to win). I think that’s huge, especially early in the season. We’re going to take what we can and move on.”
Added Blazers head coach Guy Charron: “It’s always good to be tested like that early in the season. A lot of people say ‘Oh, you’re going to have a good season,’ or ‘You’re one of the teams (to beat).’ But you know what? In this division and conference, there isn’t an easy team. You have to perform to be successful.
“One thing that our team has done since the beginning of the season is that we know we can rally. On Friday, we played pond hockey, and you’re not going to beat teams too often when you do that. (Saturday), we tightened up defensively, I thought we were able to stay in the game. This team, for some reason, even though they might be down by one or two goals, they believe they can come back.”
The Rockets didn’t like either result, but they did walk away from the weekend with some confidence.
“I think we really showed teams around the league that we’re in it this season,” said Franko. “Seriously. From line 1 to line 4. From D pairing 1 to D pairing 4, and Cooke is outstanding. We’re really building, but we still have a long way to go. Discipline is huge in this league, and we can’t allow teams to have as many power plays as Kamloops did in two games. Ultimately, that’s what cost us.”
Having surrendered 13 power-plays to Kamloops in two games, Huska was asked how quickly this problem will be addressed. His response: “The couple of penalties we did have, they were bad penalties. There’s quite a bit of difference from the night before in regards to the number of penalties, but the quality of the penalties we took wasn’t very good.
“It will be (easy to fix). With the number of bodies around, it is easy to fix.”
Added Franko: “This has to be fixed immediately. We’re going into Portland next weekend, and they’re as good, if not better, on the power play. They have Ty Rattie and all those defencemen who can shoot, they’re all good. We have to figure this out really quick . . . it’s a tough pill to swallow, but the sun rises tomorrow and we’re all a tight-knit group. We’re all forgiving and I think we’ll pull through.”
Late in the second period, Blazers defenceman Tyler Hansen was injured in a collision involving four players. As Hansen closed in for the puck along the left halfwall in Kamloops’ zone, he appeared to take a blow to the head from either a teammate or a Rockets skater who tried avoiding Hansen and two other players.
Following the collision, Hansen fell to the ice and stayed there, prompting a stoppage in play. Medical assistance quickly followed, and a stretcher and spineboard were called for. Fifteen minutes later, Hansen, strapped to the stretcher, left the arena for Kelowna General Hospital.
“We watched (the collision) on the replay,” Charron said, “and, unfortunately, Tyler’s head is kind of pointed towards the wall. It’s more of a collision; it wasn’t a hit. And, consequently, we just hope that after they examine him, that it’s not as bad as it looked initially.”
Hansen was released from hospital before midnight and returned to Kamloops with goaltending coach Dan De Pape. The extent of any injury hasn’t yet been made known.
ICE CHIPS: Kelowna’s scratches were D Jesse Lees, D Riley Stadel, D Mitchell Chapman (ankle), RW J.T. Barnett (knee) and RW Austin Ferguson. Kamloops’ scratches were G Cole Cheveldave (undisclosed injury), D Tyler Bell (knee), RW Chase Souto, LW Brayden Gelsinger and D Josh Connolly. . . . Saturday’s attendance was 5,523, ending Kelowna’s consecutive sellout streak of 283 games.
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