Thanks to Tyson Baillie, the Kelowna Rockets are alive to experience a second-round playoff series.
And now they’ll face the Kamloops Blazers in a Western Conference semifinal minus several regulars — possibly all seven who were out of the Kelowna lineup during Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime victory over the visiting Seattle Thunderbirds.
The win capped a rally from a 3-0 deficit in games in the best-of-seven conference quarter-final. Tyson Baillie was the triggerman on the OT goal and became a footnote in WHL history, his marker making the Rockets just the second team in league history to rally from three games down to win a series (the other team being the 1996 Spokane Chiefs).
The Rockets, heavy favourites heading into the series, clearly overcame a ton of adversity to get past the Thunderbirds, including a goal by Seattle captain Luke Lockhart with 7.3 seconds remaining in the third period Wednesday that forced overtime.
“It just says so much about this team,” Baillie told Doyle Potenteau of the Kelowna Daily Courier, “how we can just come back with short bodies and younger guys stepping up and the guys who don’t play much stepping up and playing a huge role.
“We just had to believe that we could do it and we did.”
Rockets head coach Ryan Huska praised his team’s determination and never-say-die attitude.
“They found themselves behind the eight-ball and some serious injury trouble, but they continued to push and that’s something we are very proud of. I thought they were very courageous in Game 6 and the same thing (in Game 7),” he said.
Outside of the other dressing room, Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk bemoaned his club’s lack of good fortune. He also expressed sorrow for his players while crediting his entire troupe for pushing the favoured Rockets to the brink.
“This was a heartbreaker for our guys,” said Konowalchuk. “Our guys battled hard and they didn’t leave too much on the ice. That’s what we asked of them before the series started. They went out and they played hard and they gave (Kelowna) way more than they wanted. To be so close . . . to be so close and to come up a goal short in overtime, it really hurts. But we’ll learn from it.”
The loss ended the WHL career of former Red Deer Rebels captain Adam Kambeitz, who was dealt from the Saskatoon Blades to the Thunderbirds in January.
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The Saskatoon Blades’ crash-and-burn act in the opening round of the playoffs will not change the timing of when the league chooses a MasterCard Memorial Cup host.
As Daniel Nugent-Bowman of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix noted this week, the city of Saskatoon and the Blades were awarded the 2013 Memorial Cup in October of 2011, a full 17 months before the first puck drop in this year’s event — set for May 17-26.
Conversely, the OHL and QMJHL wait until much closer to the tournament start date to pick a host team during their years in the cycle. The OHL will decide next month whether London, Barrie or Windsor will get the 2014 event.
Waiting longer could provide a better indication of the on-ice calibre of the host team.
However, WHL commissioner Rob Robison said that delaying a decision would create problems in regards to the commitments required from teams along with city and provincial governments.
“The scope of this event has increased significantly over the years,” Robison told Nugent-Bowman. “We feel strongly that it’s important to provide the host centre with as much lead time as possible.”
While the Blades were swept out of the Eastern Conference quarter-finals by the Medicine Hat Tigers — giving them roughly 50 days off before their next game, which will be their Memorial Cup opener — CHL president Dave Branch said that should not create a knee-jerk reaction by the WHL.
“You have to be careful you don’t react, respond to one situation,” said Branch. “You have to look at the full spectrum.
“When you look back at previous WHL host teams, they’ve done exceptionally well. I don’t personally see there being any reason to revisit the process.”
l Just notes: Portland Winterhawks forward Brendan Leipsic is the WHL player of the week for the period ending March 31. Leipsic collected nine points — four goals and five assists — while posting a plus-3 rating in three games as the ‘Hawks won two of three games in their Western Conference quarter-final series versus the Everett Silvertips. Leipsic, an 18-year-old from Winnipeg, is in his third full season in the WHL. The five-foot-nine, 170-pound centre currently shares the WHL lead in post-season scoring with 11 points in just five games. A Nashville Predators prospect, Leipsic shared the regular-season scoring lead with Portland linemate Nic Petan — each posting 120 points — and led all WHL players with 49 goals . . . Swift Current Broncos outgoing captain Adam Lowry has signed an amateur tryout agreement with the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League, the primary affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets selected Lowry in the third round — 67th overall — of the 2011 NHL entry draft . . . Forward Mark McNeill, who served as captain of the Prince Albert Raiders this season, has been assigned to the Rockford Ice Hogs of the AHL by the Chicago Blackhawks, who picked the Edmonton native in the first round — 18th overall — of the 2011 NHL draft . . . Kootenay Ice graduating forward Brock Montgomery has signed an ATP with the Texas Stars of the AHL. Additionally, the Stars announced that three players have been returned to the team from the parent Dallas Stars. Included on the list are Red Deer products and fellow wingers Matt Fraser and Colton Sceviour.