The Kamloops Blazers gave the defending WHL champions everything they could handle in their Western Hockey League first-round playoff series.
When all was said and done, the Kelowna Rockets had the last word.
Tomas Soustal scored at 7:07 of overtime to boost the Rockets past the Blazers 2-1 in the seventh and deciding game of the Western Conference quarterfinal series on Monday night at Prospera Place.
Soustal picked up a rebound of a Gordie Ballhorn shot and deposited behind Connor Ingram to send the majority of 5,371 fans into a frenzy, while sending the Rockets onto the second round of the post season against the Victoria Royals.
“Gordie put a good shot on the pad and I just tipped it in, I don’t know it happened, but it’s just an awesome feeling,” Soustal said of the game and series winner. “It was Game 7, do or die, we put everything on the line, it paid off.”
After being pulled in Game 6 two nights earlier in a 4-0 loss in Kamloops, Michael Herringer was back in the Rockets’ net Monday and bounced back with 24 saves against the Blazers and a first-star performance.
“You’ve got to have a short memory, it’s playoffs, I didn’t think I was good enough in the last game, but you’ve got to be ready to go the next game,” Herringer said. “It feels good, it was our goal to win the series when we started it, we did that, now we’ve got to get ready for Victoria.”
The series was a seesaw battle from start to finish between the B.C. rivals, with the teams trading wins back and forth.
In the end, Brad Ralph was thrilled to see his team deliver a victory when it meant the most.
“I was proud of our group,” said Ralph. “Second period, it seemed like we were really tired. The guys dug in in the third and just kept working and working, and good things paid off for us.”
The Rockets jumped on top at 3:37 of the opening period when Justin Kirkland chipped the rebound of a Tyson Baillie shot past Connor Ingram to make it 1-0.
It remained a one-goal game until late in the second period when the Blazers drew even on what would be a controversial power play goal at 17:03.
With Kamloops forward Jiri Smejkal making contact with Rockets goaltender Michael Herringer and a mass of bodies in the crease and in front of the goal, Nick Chyzowski stuffed home a loose puck for his first of the playoffs.
Despite the vociferous objections of the Rockets and calls for an interference penalty by many of the fans at Prospera Place, the goal stood to tie the game 1-1.
Late in the third, Rourke Chartier very nearly ended the series, but his wrist shot rang off the crossbar behind Ingram and stayed out.
The Rockets will open the best-of-second round series in Victoria on Thursday night, with Game 2 set for Saturday.
Games 3 and 4 will be played in Kelowna on Tuesday, April 12 and Thursday, April 14.