Defending champs hold off Blazers in season opener

Kelowna Rockets kick off 2015-16 WHL campaign with victory at home

Tyson Baillie celebrates his first of two goals with his Kelowna Rockets teammates in the first period of Saturday night's WHL game agains the Kamloops Blazers.

Tyson Baillie and the Kelowna Rockets didn’t waste any time getting the 2015-16 Western Hockey League season kickstarted on the right foot.

The 20-year-old forward opened the scoring just 53 seconds into the game, as the defending WHL champs edged the Kamloops Blazers 4-3 Friday night in Kelowna in the regular season debut for both teams.

Prior to the game, the Rockets and 5,464 fans at Prospera Place reflected on last spring’s accomplishments with the raising of three banners to the rafters—the B.C Division, Western Conference and WHL championship.

It was also Brad Ralph’s debut behind the Rockets’ bench, and while there were some glitches—including six penalties and some defensive miscues—the new head coach was pleased with the result.

“It’s great to get the win, always,” said Ralph, who was hired in August to replace the departed Dan Lambert. “We had a great start, got in some penalty trouble and that kind of changed the momentum a bit. But we had some big kills, (Jackson) Whistle made some big saves and (Tyson) Baillie had a great game.

“All in all, I think we can tighten up defensively, but there’s a lot of good things that happened.”

Baillie, in his final season of major junior hockey, scored twice and added an assist while linemate Dillon Dube added a pair of assists.

“It was good, the crowd was into it, it was nice to get one right off the bat, get it out of the way and get the guys loose,” said Baillie who showed chemistry with Dube right from the opening face-off. “Dillon’s a great player, we’re really close off the ice, it translates on to the ice, so he’s going to have a really great career.”

Tomas Soustal added a goal and an assist, while Justin Kirkland, with the game winner on a second-period breakaway, rounded out the scoring.

Rookie Garret Pilon led the Blazers’ attack with a goal and an assist.

As for the banner-raising ceremony prior to the game and the atmosphere of a regular season crowd in Kelowna, Brad Ralph was suitably impressed with both.

“The opening ceremony was awesome,” said Ralph. “I through the crowd was electric, I thought the organization put on a good show as well. It was exciting.”

Nick Merkley, the Rockets’ leading scorer from last season, didn’t play Friday because of an upper body injury and is expected to to miss all of the team’s games this weekend.

The Rockets will visit the Blazers Saturday night, before heading to Vancouver to play the Giants on Sunday.