By MARK HUNTER
Daily News Sports Reporter
It took 57 minutes Friday, but the Kelowna Rockets finally found a way to use a goalpost to their advantage.
Tyson Baillie banked in the winning goal with 2:40 remaining in the third period as the Rockets defeated the Kamloops Blazers 3-2 in a WHL game at Interior Savings Centre. The Rockets (18-3-2), still sitting second in the Western Conference, will play host to the last-place Blazers (6-18-3) tonight.
It was Kamloops’ ninth straight loss, and the one it deserved to lose the least. The Blazers outshot the Rockets 39-36 and clawed back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game in the third period.
But Baillie ended any thoughts of a Kamloops upset when he bounced a shot off the goalpost to the right of goaltender Taran Kozun, off Blazers defenceman Sam Grist, and into the Kamloops goal.
Dave Hunchak, the head coach of the Blazers, could only shake his head.
“When you’re going through this, that tends to happen,” he said. “They hit the post and it goes off of Sam’s back and into the net. It’s unfortunate, because at that stage we were feeling like we were going to push.”
It certainly wasn’t the first post the Rockets had hit — Colton Heffley hit the cross-bar in the first minute and Kelowna players struck iron four other times before Baillie’s bouncer.
“I think we maybe hit six (posts),” said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska. “I think you make your breaks a lot of the time. . . .
“When you’re working and playing your way, the shots maybe go post and in. When you’re shortcutting things a little like tonight, that’s kind of the way the game’s going to end up.”
The Blazers haven’t won a game since Nov. 5, and looked hungry last night. They played a solid first period, but came out of it down 1-0. They followed with an even better second period, but still trailed 2-1.
“I thought we did a lot of good things here tonight,” Hunchak said. “That’s a hell of a hockey team on the other side and at times we had them on the ropes.
“I know where we’re at as far as our wins or losses are concerned, but it’s about the process right now and I thought for the better part of the game our process was pretty good.”
The Blazers simply couldn’t put the puck in the net. Matt Needham and Josh Connolly did, the latter on a power play, but Kamloops players couldn’t beat Rockets goaltender Jordon Cooke or simply shot wide.
“(The puck) has got to start going in at some point here,” Hunchak said. “Scoring chances, I know we outchanced them tonight. We missed some glorious scoring chances — at some point, it has to start going in.”
Zach Franko opened the scoring for the Rockets on a first-period power play, before Ryan Olsen made it 2-0 halfway through the second period. Needham banged in a rebound later in the second, before Connolly tied it on a power play around the midway point of the third period.
Cooke brought it home for the Rockets, stopping 37 shots.
“I thought Kamloops played a very good game,” Huska said. “When you look at our group, our goaltender was good for us, but you stretch to find too many other guys that I could include in that category.”
Kozun also was solid for the Blazers, stopping 33 shots. He stands to get more starts as Bolton Pouliot injured his right hand in practice on Thursday and is out until after Christmas.
The Blazers have called up Cole Kehler from the Okanagan Hockey Academy.
Whoever starts in goal, the Blazers are feeling a little more confident after last night.
“We aren’t too worried about the results right now, more the process,” said Blazers forward Cole Ully, who had two assists. “Hopefully the results will come, hopefully (tonight).”
JUST NOTES: Attendance was 4,227. . . . Kamloops scratched F Carson Bolduc, whom it acquired from the Prince George Cougars on Tuesday. Bolduc is out due to illness. . . . The Daily News’ Three Stars: 1. Franko: Kept buzzing all game; 2. Ully: Had two assists, two big hits and should have had two goals; 3. Cooke: There’s a reason he’s 14-1-2 this season. . . . The Blazers’ next home game is Friday, 7 p.m., against the Kootenay Ice. . . . G Liam McLeod, who is from Kamloops, is no longer with the BCHL’s Nanaimo Clippers. The 17-year-old posted on his Twitter feed: “Thanks a lot to the @ClippersHockey for the time I spent with the team, best of luck the rest of the season.” McLeod, whom the Blazers selected in the 2011 bantam draft and who attended main camp this summer, no longer is on Kamloops’ list.
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