No team in the Western Hockey League has caused more distress for the Kelowna Rockets this season than the Victoria Royals.
Axel Bolmqvist scored the decisive goal with 3:20 to play in the third period, as the Royals slipped past the Rockets 3-2 Tuesday night in WHL action at Prospera Place.
Victoria, which has won 13 of its last 14 games, beat Kelowna in five of eight meetings during the 2013-14 regular season.
The setback, just their 11th in regulation time this season, prevented the Rockets, the Canadian Hockey League’s No. 1-ranked team, from clinching first place overall in the WHL.
The second-place Portland Winterhawks remained in the hunt thanks to a 3-2 shootout win Tuesday over Tri-City.
Rookie Tanner Wishnowski, 16, on his first shift in a Rockets’ uniform, put Kelowna on top at 2:18 of the opening period, before Brandon Magee evened the count just past the 16-minute mark.
The Rockets moved ahead at 16:45 of the second period when Cole Linaker struck for a short-handed marker, beating Patrik Polivka on a breakaway for his 11th goal of the season.
The Royals pushed hard in the third period and were rewarded just five minutes in when Ryan Gagnon’s point shot beat Cooke to tie the game, setting the stage for Blomqvist’s winner.
While Ryan Huska praised the play of some of his younger players like Rourke Chartier, Nick Merkley and Cole Linaker, he couldn’t say the same about a number of the team’s veterans.
“They were grittier than we were,” coach Ryan Huska told AM 1150. “I can’t say that about our younger guys, I can say that about our older guys. That’s the issue that we’re a little disappointed with. When you have big games, you want more out of your older players and tonight we didn’t get that.”
In a recurring theme against Victoria, the Rockets went 0-for-5 on the power play Tuesday, to finish the season an eye-popping 0-for-35 against the Royals.
“I thought their penalty kill outworked our power play,” Huska said. “We had opportunities to capitalize and really keep momentum in our favour. We didn’t have the urgency that we needed with our power play tonight.”
The Rockets (54-11-0-4) will have another chance to clinch the WHL’s overall title when they visit the Kamloops Blazers on Wednesday.
One Kelowna win or Portland (51-13-2-3) loss over the final three games of the regular season would secure top spot for the Rockets.
Regardless of the outcome of the final three games of the regular season, the Rockets will open the WHL playoffs at home, with Games 1 and 2 on Saturday, March 22 and Sunday, March 23.