Dan Lambert didn’t see his team advance this far along the postseason trail by looking beyond the task at hand or underestimating its opponents.
And even with a commanding 3-0 series lead and a championship looming, the head coach of the Kelowna Rockets is making no assumptions about Game 4 of the Western Hockey League final.
Wednesday night at Prospera Place, while the Brandon Wheat Kings will be fighting for their playoff lives, the Rockets will be a victory away from a berth in the Memorial Cup.
“We have to do our best to look at it as another game and just live in the moment,” said Lambert, in his first season as the club’s head coach.
“You try not to think of the outcome, what happens or the consequences of what we do. We have to just make sure we play our game for every shift of the 60 minutes.
“Anytime you get into Game 4, that’s the hardest one to win and everybody understands that,” Lambert added. “(The Wheat Kings) won’t go away. We’re going to have to come out with our best effort.”
The Rockets took firm control of the best-of-seven series with back-to-back wins last weekend in Brandon.
Then on Monday, despite a third-period pushback by the Wheat Kings, Kelowna hung on for a 5-3 win to advance to within a game of their first WHL crown in six seasons.
As has been the case since the playoffs began, Lambert credits his team’s level of both urgency and work ethic for their success to date.
He’ll be lobbying his players for the same kind of effort in the potential title-clincher Wednesday in front of what will be another sellout audience.
“You look at our lineup and our compete and we certainly have a lot of players (like that), they have success because they do win battles,” said Lambert. “When you’re competing, you’re going to have a lot of good things happen. Every hockey player in the world lets his foot off the gas once in a while. We (coaches) have to remind them of that, to be accountable, make sure we’re competing on every shift.”
The Wheat Kings who edged out the Rockets by two points (114 to 112) for the WHL’s overall regular season title, were never in serious jeopardy through first three rounds of the WHL playoffs.
But against Kelowna, Brandon has spent much of the series playing from behind, unable to consistently crack the Rockets’ defensive system or curtail their most gifted offensive players from scoring timely goals.
It isn’t where Kelly McCrimmon wanted or expected to be, but even with a big hill to climb the Wheat Kings’ head coach and GM said his team isn’t about to concede the series.
“We’re disappointed to be facing elimination in the fourth game of the series,” McCrimmon said. “If we could have won (Monday) it’s a brand-new series, it changes the complexion of it significantly.
“It’s our first time facing elimination this season,” he added. “Our team has really shown many times we respond well (to adversity) and we’ll look to do that Wednesday in Game 4.”
The Wheat Kings, who led the WHL in goals scored this season, have shown more than once during the series they are capable of striking quickly, twice overcoming two-goal deficits, while making Monday’s game interesting after falling behind 4-1.
Dan Lambert remains circumspect of the Wheat Kings’ offensive attack.
“They were the highest scoring team in the league for a reason,” Lambert said. “They’re resilient, they never give up, they have a tremendous amount of skill and determination and it certainly shows when they’ve been down in the series.”
Game 5, if necessary, will be played Friday night at Prospera Place.
The series winner will advance to the Memorial Cup in Quebec City, March 23 to 31.