Monday, May 2, 2022

Jim McKay said it best!

Bad blood was evident even before puck drop

'The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat.'

It's the famous line from Jim McKay on ABC's Wide World of Sports.

Staying alive in a playoff series with the Seattle Thunderbirds with an overtime win in game four, the Kelowna Rockets went from thrill to nil in less than 48 hours. A goal just 1:20 into the extra session in game five and it was over in an instant.

The odds were clearly stacked against the Rockets to make a comeback from a 0-3 deficit, but the game five effort by the underdog had you pondering if the improbable was possible. 

I knew coming into game five that three things would have to happen for the Rockets to survive another day. Goaltending would have to be elite. Discipline would have to be paramount and the teams true character would have to reveal itself once again to send the series back across the border for a game six on Sunday. All three were prominent which made the loss that much tougher to swallow. Talyn Boyko was the best player on the ice. His MVP skills were on display. The Rockets allowed the T-Birds just two power play chances and the penalty killing unit was on point. While the ice was tilted in the T-Birds favour throughout the night, I was not under the illusion going into the game that it wouldn't be the case. Without Pavel Novak and Mark Liwiski in the lineup, this was about escaping with a road victory with 53 combined goals and 118 combined points out of the lineup. Had a game six been played, Liwiski would have been back from a two game suspension while Novak (29 goals this season) was a possibility for a triumphant return after missing games four and five.

Things looked grim. Down 3-1 with 10 minutes left in the third period, a Jake Lee tally made it a one goal game before Gabriel Szturc scored :10 seconds later and it was 3-3. It had all the makings of a comeback and the sense the road team would prevail despite the odds stacked against them. 

Heading into overtime, the upset was clearly in place. With a goalie dialed in and the Rockets playing with house money, you could sense another overtime win for a team that had so much success playing 17 times in extra time time this season.

It wasn't to be though. 

Was it a bad stick? Was it buckling under the pressure? In the sequence before the game winning goal was scored, Captain Tyson Feist attempted to clear the zone, but his stick gave out on him. It created a turnover that T-Birds forward Jordon Gustafson gathered up and fired a hard shot that Tayln Boyko is able to get a shoulder on. As the Rockets scrambled to regain the puck, Feist was seen skating towards the front of his own net leaning on his stick several times to see if the shaft was broken. Eventually the puck is cleared before Rockets again regroup with it in their own zone. Elias Carmichael passes it to Feist. The 21 year-old misses the puck on a first pass attempt, weakly moves in along the boards a second time before losing it again to Gustafson a third time. The T-Birds 23 goal man promptly sends the puck to teammate Reid Shaefer for a two-on-one with Matthew Rempe. As fate would have it, Rempe received the pass, waits for Boyko to go down to the butterfly and beats him glove side, short side.  

Game over. Season over.   

'The thrill of victory to the agony of defeat'. Powerful words from Jim McKay when describing the human drama of athletic competition. 

  • I really need to applaud Tayln Boyko for his resilience in this series. The 19 year-old was not good in game one or two. Neither was his teammates. That said, Boyko had to be the teams best player and he wasn't. Thankfully, it all changed after he was replaced in game three by rookie Jari Kykkanen. Instead of sulking or bailing on his teammates, the New York Rangers draft pick was brilliant in a game four overtime win and equally as good, if not better, in game five. Boyko made 40 saves and did all one can ask for in an effort to extend the series. 
  • What was with the booing in game five every time Jake Lee touched the puck? The Seattle faithful quickly turned on one of it's own in a hurry. Lee was sour before game four which resulted in some bad words at centre ice with T-Birds Captain Tyrell Bauer, but did that deserve jeers in return?  
  • Rookie Marcus Pacheco deserves some praise. With the loss of Liwiski and Novak, the 16 year-old made his playoff debut in game four. I'd suggest he looked more comfortable in game five with his elite skating ability on display. My fear was the likable Pacheco would play timid against a team that loves to initiate contact, but I was pleasantly surprised by how he didn't cower. That's why playoff hockey is so valuable. It pushes you out of a comfort zone and reveals that you are more resilient than even you think are.
  • In a previous post, I mentioned that the Rockets got better as the series went along. It really was the reason why I honestly believed the upset was on. A game five win in overtime would have set the wheels in motion that the Rockets could indeed accomplish something the 2013 team also did against Seattle. Down 0-3, the Rockets battled back to win games four, five, six and seven in dramatic fashion. 
  • Concerning? Colton Dach's lack of offensive production in the series. When your leading scorer during the regular season (29 goals and 79 points) is help pointless in all five games, the chances of advancing in the playoffs is very low. Was he hurt? Dach has joined the AHL's Rockford IceHogs for the playoffs, so technically his season continues. 
  • Jake Lee ended up being tied for the team lead in playoff points with 4. Andrew Cristall also had four assists in the five games. Adam Kydd and Gabriel Szturc each found the back of the net a team high - twice - in the series. The Rockets managed to score just 11 goals in 5 playoff games. It is tough to win with that lack of production. 
  • Kydd is a lock to be a 20 year-old on the team next season. Jake Poole and Tayln Boyko return as overage players as well. You have to wonder about Pavel Novak's future though. Typically, European born players don't return to junior if they are unsigned by the NHL team that draft them. They go back home and play pro. The Rockets would love to have the 72 point producer as a 20 year-old next season. The Minnesota Wild selected Novak in the 5th round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and have until June to sign him. If Novak returns to the WHL, it will be the first time the Rockets will have a European player on their roster, who's 20, since Jan Fadry was acquired from the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2001. Fadry had a great season, collecting 79 points in 56 games with his new team. Tomas Soustal was a 20 year-old in 2017, but was traded to the Edmonton Oil Kings just three games into his overage season.
  • The loss ended the junior careers of Lee, Tyson Feist and Mark Liwiski. That trio all had career seasons offensively, so those departures will be impactful. It will allow rookies Caden Price and John Babcock to play prominent roles moving forward. Price could quarterback the power play and Babcock can be that bull that shuts down the other teams top scorers. 
  • It was nice to call playoff hockey again. After an absence of four years (2018 was the last time), it was a pleasure calling pressure packed hockey. Thank you - the fan - for listening to the games this season, or watching them on the WHL webcast. I also want to thank long time colour analyst Gord McGarva for his commitment again this season. McGarva has been with me since 2009, and while he wasn't able to be by my side in the broadcast booth during the playoffs, he's assured me of his return when the puck drops this fall.

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