Wracked by injuries and down three games to none, the Kelowna Rockets dug deep for an unlikely comeback in their first-round Western Hockey League playoff series.
Now, with little time to rest or savour their dramatic seven-game triumph over the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Rockets are in the process of reloading for their next challenge—the Kamloops Blazers.
Kelowna will host the rival Blazers Saturday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal series.
“They’re a very good team, we’ve seen them all year long and they’re a challenging team to play against,” Rockets head coach Ryan Huska said of the Blazers. “We’re going to have to regroup quickly and get ready to play them.”
Injuries have taken their toll on Kelowna as the Rockets will open the second-round series with as many as seven regulars out of the lineup, including three defencemen.
With a healthy roster, the Rockets—who won 52 games and finished ahead of Kamloops to win the B.C. Division title—would have likely been a slim favourite to take down the Blazers in round two.
As it is, head coach Ryan Huska said his players will once again need to find ways to overcome the odds.
“I think both teams were comparable during the regular season and it showed in the games we played against them,” said Huska, whose team won four of 10 games against the Blazers, with two losses coming in overtime. “But with the situation we find ourselves in, the injuries we have, they have to be considered the favourite. So we have to continue to believe in ourselves and play as a team like we did against Seattle.”
It was just that belief that Huska said carried his club to its historical first-round come-from-behind series win over Seattle.
The 2013 Rockets join the 1996 Spokane Chiefs as the only teams in WHL history to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series.
The clincher came in dramatic style in Game 7 Wednesday at Prospera Place, as Tyson Baillie converted a cross-ice pass from Madison Bowey at 5:10 of overtime to push the Rockets to a 3-2 victory.
Baillie’s winner was his third goal of the game and came after Seattle’s Luke Lockhart had scored with just seven seconds left in regulation to send the teams to an extra period for the fifth time in the series.
“It’s unbelievable,” an elated Baillie said after the game. “Being down 3-0 in the series, we came back and won three hard games. Of course, this one had to go to overtime. We had the character to pull it off.”
Huska said his team’s belief and resolve, even in the most desperate of moments early in the series, made the comeback possible.
“We put ourselves in a bad spot by not getting off to the start we wanted in the series,” he said. “(Our players) never did lose their belief. They’re a group that has great spirit and that’s one thing, when we got our win in Game 4 you could almost sense some of our swagger coming back. And a credit to a lot of our older, injured guys, they made sure our room kept that belief.”
As for Baillie, who leads the Rockets in playoff scoring with seven goals and 12 points, the 5-foot-10 centre looks forward to his team’s next challenge beginning Saturday night.
“We’ve had a lot of hard battles against Kamloops this year,” Baillie said. “We just have to find a way to shut down their top scorers and we should be good.”
Game 2 of the series will go Sunday at 5 p.m. at Prospera Place, with Games 3 and 4 scheduled for Kamloops on April 9 and 10.