Quebec City — On Sunday night in Quebec City, the Kelowna Rockets came agonizingly close to realizing their ultimate goal.
Instead, the Western Hockey League champs will reluctantly settle for being second best in Canadian major junior hockey.
In a one-game game showdown at Colisée Pepsi, the Oshawa Generals defeated the Rockets 2-1 in overtime to win the 97th Memorial Cup championship.
Anthony Cirelli’s second goal of the night at 1:28 of the extra period was the difference, denying Kelowna its second CHL title in franchise history.
While the Rockets didn’t get what they came for, an emotional Madison Bowey was proud of his team’s effort, both at the tournament and all season long.
“It was a helluva year for us,” said the Rockets captain. “I’m proud of the guys, we battled hard right to the end. It’s just tough to go out like that.”
The Rockets, who fell to the defensive-minded Generals 2-1 in the final game of the round robin on Tuesday, had the edge in play for much of Sunday’s final and more than a handful of quality chances, but could only get one of 38 shots behind Oshawa goaltender Ken Appleby.
The Rockets’ lone goal came at 15:18 of the first when Tomas Soustal took a puck off the back boards and slipped the puck behind for a 1-0 Kelowna lead.
Kelowna continued to control the play until midway in the second, when the Rockets were handed back-to-back minor penalties.
The Generals didn’t score on either power play, but gained some momentum and struck soon after when Cirelli beat Jackson Whistle from a 2-on-1 at 13:50 to tie the game.
“I felt for a lot of the game we had a lot of chances, a lot of opportunities, we probably had momentum for the first half of the game,” said Rockets head coach Dan Lambert. “Then there were a couple of calls that went the other way that gave them momentum that was hard to get back.
“But in saying that, we had lots of opportunities and it was a hard fought battle.”
The third period was relatively conservative and tight-checking but both teams had their chances.
Midway in the third, Whistle sprawled across the crease to take a goal away from Mike McCarron.
With just over five minutes left Nick Merkley broke in free on Appleby but, on the deke attempt, the puck slid off his stick and wide of the net.
In overtime, Oshawa struck quickly Cirelli crashed the net and banged a rebound past Whistle to give the Generals their first national major junior championship in 25 years.
While Lambert was disappointed in the outcome, he couldn’t say the same for his team’s effort.
“I can’t ask anything more than what our guys gave,” said Lambert. “They left it out there, and on a different night with a little bit of more bearing down and luck, we would have had four or five.”
As for the season as a whole—which included a WHL title and a berth in the national final—the head coach spread the accolades around to his entire team.
“Obviously I’m really proud of the guys,” he said. “They’ve grown so much as a group. It’s too bad for them that it finished this way.”
While dejected following the game, forward Leon Draisital, who the Rockets acquired in January was named the Memorial Cup’s most valuable player, had nothing but praise for his teammates.
“This is the most talented group I’ve ever played on, we put in so much work this year,” said Draisaitl who had four goals and seven points during the tournament. “We’re very proud of each other, throughout the entire lineup we’ve done a great job.”
The Rockets, who have been to five Memorial Cups in the last 12 years, won their lone CHL title on home ice in 2004.
The 2015 Rockets are scheduled to arrive home in Kelowna between 1 and 1:30 p.m. Pacific time.
Last game at Colisée…
In may be small consolation for now, but the Rockets will forever be woven into the rich history of Colisée Pepsi as one of the last two teams to play at the storied arena.
Built in 1949, the Colisée housed the likes of Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur and Patrick Roy, and was home to the NHL’s Quebec Nordigues for 17 seasons from 1979 to 1995.
The last major event, a Metallica Concert, will be held there in September 2015.
The new Videotron Centre, which will seat than 18,000 seats for hockey, will replace Colisée Pepsi.