By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
It was late Wednesday night in the bowels of Interior Savings Centre.
The vanquished, the Kelowna Rockets, were packing their gear and loading their bus, wanting only to get out of the building where their WHL season had come to a sudden stop less than 30 minutes earlier.
The conquerors, the Kamloops Blazers, meanwhile, already were looking ahead to the Portland Winterhawks.
The Blazers swept the Rockets from the Western Conference semifinal, the series-winning goal coming from right-winger Kale Kessy at 2:24 of overtime.
That goal set up a rematch of sorts with the Winterhawks, this one in the best-of-seven conference final. It will open with games in Portland on April 19 and 20, before resuming in Kamloops on April 23 and 24.
“They’ve won the last two Western Conference finals,” offered Kamloops centre Brendan Ranford, who put up nine points in the four games with Kelowna. “We had a great series with them last year and it’ll be a good one again.”
A year ago, Kamloops and Portland met in a conference semifinal. The Winterhawks won the first three games before the Blazers staged a near-epic comeback, winning the next three before falling 2-0 in Game 7 in Portland.
That series will be remembered in these parts mostly for Game 6, a game in which the Blazers trailed 5-2 early in the third period, took a 6-5 lead at 15:21, fell into a tie at 15:47 and won it 7-6 on defenceman Bronson’s Maschmeyer goal at 19:39.
The 5,080 fans in the house were so pumped when it ended that they stood and cheered until the Blazers returned from their dressing room for what amounted to a curtain call.
“I think we learned a lot from that series . . . that we never quit,” Ranford said. “Even when it’s tied, we just keep pushing and pushing.
“You could see it in Game 3 and 4 (against Kelowna). It was a tie game but we kept pushing. We are playing with confidence instead of playing scared . . . we’re playing to win; we’re not playing to lose.
“It’s been fun and we’re going to keep pushing.”
While Ranford and Co. were eliminating the Rockets, the Winterhawks were sweeping the Spokane Chiefs, ending it with a 5-0 victory on the road on Wednesday.
“They get rolling and they play hard and they have a lot of skill on that team,” Ranford said of the Winterhawks, who outscored the Chiefs 18-3 in four games. “We have to minimize their skill and just play a hard-nosed game like we can.”
For the Blazers, it also has been a case of sticking with the game plan no matter the circumstances.
On Tuesday, the Rockets dominated the first period, but the Blazers stayed with the game plan – get pucks deep, make the Kelowna defence work – and it paid off. On Wednesday, the Blazers had the great start, but the Rockets came back and tied it. Still, the Blazers stuck with the plan.
“They were tired. You could tell,” Charron said of Kelowna’s defencemen. “We kept by the game plan and made sure pucks were in deep and made them work.”
Charron pointed out that making defenders work doesn’t necessarily mean being physical.
“If you work down there and you force them to work defensively, to defend, it makes them tired,” Charron said. “If you can make the other team defend more than you, chances are you will get some offence and you should be able to pull it off.”
“Even when it was 3-3,” Ranford said, “we kept on sticking to our game plan. It worked out, didn’t it? That’s what we do and it’s been awesome. . . . it’s been a good ride so far. But we’ve got a good team in Portland . . .
“I think we’re a good match for them. We just have to play our game and play our structure and it’ll be good.”
Meanwhile, Kelowna head coach Ryan Huska expects a Kamloops-Portland series to be “entertaining to watch” because both teams have excellent transition games.
“They are two of the most offensively dangerous teams in our conference,” Huska said. “I think it will be a fast paced series. Probably at the end of the day it will come down to goaltenders.”
If an MVP had been selected in the Kamloops-Kelowna series, it may well have been Blazers goaltender Cole Cheveldave. It wasn’t that he stopped an overwhelming number of shots – 105 out of 115 (.913) – but the number of timely, momentum-killing saves he made was off the charts.
In 10 playoff games, Cheveldave is 8-2, 2.60, .895.
Meanwhile, Portland’s Mac Carruth became the first goaltender in franchise history to post two shutouts in one series when he held Spokane to three goals over four games. Overall, Carruth is 8-2, 1.74, .925.
Carruth also became the winning goaltender in WHL playoff history. He has 41 victories, two more than Cam Ward, who won 38 during his career with the Red Deer Rebels.
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