The largest crowd of the season at Prospera Place came to see the Kelowna Rockets close out their second-round Western Hockey League playoff series.
The Victoria Royals were all too happy to disappoint them.
The WHL’s regular season champs scored the game’s first three goals, then held off the Rockets for a 3-2 victory on Sunday night in Kelowna, tying the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series 3-3.
The seventh and deciding game is set for Tuesday at Save-on-Foods Memorial Arena in Victoria.
After losing the first two games of the series, the Rockets rebounded with three straight wins to move to within a victory of their third straight trip to the Western Conference final.
But in front of a season-high 6,246 fans, Rockets’ head coach Brad Ralph said his club simply didn’t play well enough to get the job done.
“Victoria outplayed us tonight, our first period wasn’t good,” said Ralph. “You know, just simple things, winning battles, getting pucks deep, that cost us the game.”
Jack Walker, with his eighth of the postseason, and Tyler Soy, with his sixth—on the power play—spotted the Royals to a 2-0 lead after one. Victoria captain Joe Hicketts, playing his fourth game of the series after missing seven games with an undisclosed injury, assisted on both goals.
After Regan Nagy gave the Royals a three-goal cushion at 15:40 of the second, rookie Cal Foote gave the Rockets some life with just 17 seconds remaining in the period, following up on his own rebound for his first goal of the playoffs.
Just over three minutes into the third period Justin Kirkland connected on a wrist-shot from the slot to make it a one-goal game.
But the Royals, who outshot the Rockets 36-27, dug in to preserve the win, sending the series to a seventh and deciding game.
“They kept with their systems, they kept pushing,” said Rockets captain Rodney Southam. “We let off the gas a little bit and it cost us the game.”
As he has been all series, Michael Herringer was solid in goal for the Rockets, keeping his team within striking distance with some key saves.
Southam said the Rockets will need their stopper again in the series finale.
“Herry’s an outstanding goalie and he’s the reason why, maybe, we’re in Game 7 right now,” said Southam. “He’s going to play a big factor in Game 7 and we’re looking forward to it.”
:After requiring the limit to dispose of the Kamloops Blazers in the opening round of the playoffs, the Rockets are headed for a deciding game for the second straight series.
Brad Ralph said there are no secrets as to what his team needs to bring on Tuesday.
“We have to raise our battle level, come back with that urgency that we’ve had here and we’ll be all right,” said Ralph. “The reason why we’ve been successful is because we’ve been playing a heavier game and being physical.
“I didn’t see that tenaciousness out of our team tonight, so we need to get back to that. If we do that, we can slow them down.”
The winner of Game 7 on Tuesday night will advance to the Western Conference final against the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Seattle defeated Everett in five games in the other conference semifinal.