Thursday, May 17, 2012

09 WHL Championship series brings back such good memories

The Vancouver Province recently asked veteran broadcaster Dan Russell (Sportstalk is heard weekdays from 9 until midnight on AM 1150) to name the top five Western Hockey League finals ever.
Russell sided with the Medicine Hat Tigers win over the Vancouver Giants in 2007, with game seven decided in double overtime.  
Russell could be right.
Personally, the best league championship series I ever witnessed was the 2009 final between the Kelowna Rockets and Calgary Hitmen.
The Rockets were the clear underdogs despite the likes of future NHL'ers Jamie Benn, Mikael Backlund and Tyler Myers in their line up. The Hitmen were loaded with talent that season and were hyped all year as the team to beat after racking up 59 wins and 122 points.
The Hitmen scored 63 more goals than the Rockets that season and had 12 more wins. To top it off, the Hitmen cruised through the playoffs with series sweeps over Edmonton, Lethbridge and Brandon on their way to the league final.
The Rockets road wasn't as smooth. After a four game sweep over Kamloops in round one, the team lost the first two games against the Tri City Americans before winning four in a row to advance to the Western Conference Final.
In the conference finals the Rockets were forced to six games against a Vancouver Giants team that was every bit as good on paper. Of the six games played in that series, four were decided by a single goal.
After a heart attack special against the Giants to clinch the series on home ice, it was off to the WHL final against the dreaded Hitmen.
Before a crowd of just over 12 thousand fans at the Saddledome in game one, Jamie Benn would score twice, once into an empty net in the two goal win. 
The big surprise came in game two when Mikael Backlund scored twice in a 5-2 victory. To everyone's surprise, the mighty Hitmen were down two games to none, having suffered their first two losses of the playoffs - both coming on home ice.  Game three, before a capacity crowd at Prospera Place of  6 thousand 329, designated tough guy Ryley Grantham, acquired at the trade deadline for Moose Jaw, would score the game winner in a 2-0 shutout win. Mark Guggenberger made 21 saves as the Rockets took a commanding three games to none lead in the series.  The series was over. Or was it?
The Hitmen were loaded with talent and character, and with their backs clearly against the wall, the regular season champions won game four 6-2 before scoring another six goals in a game five 6-1 win only a night later in Calgary.
Oh-oh. The Rockets were now the team in trouble as the Hitmen clearly had the momentum. The only saving grace was game six would be played in Kelowna, a place where the Rockets had lost only twice in the 2009 post season.     
Game six saw the Hitmen open the scoring with a shorthanded goal before the Rockets retaliated with back-to-back second period goals to take a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes. With 6 thousand 383 fans on the edge of their seats, the Hitmen would get a power play goal from Joel Broda in the third period to set the stage for overtime. 
In overtime, with nervous tension in the air, Hitmen defenceman Alex Plante was penalized for hooking.  With the Rockets on the power play and a face-off inside the Calgary zone,  the puck would go to the half wall where Mikael Backlund would quickly pass the puck to teammate Jamie Benn, who was situated in the right corner. Without hesitation, Benn fired the puck in front to an awaiting Tyson Barrie, who snapped it past startled Hitmen goaltender Martin Jones.
Game over.
Series over.
The Kelowna Rockets were WHL champions and celebrated their first league title on home ice.  The teams other two titles were won on the road in Red Deer (2003) and Brandon (2005).  
What a game.
What a team.
What a series.


Unknown said...

I recall that game 6 vs Calgary. Best game I ever saw live. Backlund flattened by Stone(?) and then Benn dropped the gloves in support of Backlund. The beautiful pass by Backlund to Duval for the breakaway goal. Barries OT winner. What a game!

Gord McGarva said...

Fond memories indeed. Best Jr. Hockey Game I ever saw..... no, that was best hockey game I ever saw!

jaz301 said...

I remember that game 6 like it was yesterday. Since I never went to Memorial cup games this was the best game I witnessed live. I remember being on the edge of my seat in the OT and once rockets scored I just remember jumping up and down and running up the stairs giving people high faves. Bring back great memories.