Blazers ground Rockets in WHL play-in game to crack post-season

Kobe Mohr may never score a bigger goal.

The Kamloops Blazers’ 19-year-old forward from Lloydminster, Alta., swerved to the middle of the ice, paused for a second, held on for another brief moment, watched as a Kelowna Rockets’ D-man slid by and uncorked a shot that beat goaltender Roman Basran.

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Mohr’s marker gave the Blazers a 2-1 lead and sparked a four-goal third period that lifted the home team to a 5-1 victory over the Rockets in the WHL’s seventh-ever play-in game.

Kamloops will travel to Vancouver Island to play the Victoria Royals in Round 1 of the playoffs, with Games 1 and 2 set for Friday and Saturday, respectively. The Blazers will host Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

The road team had won five of the previous six sudden-death play-in contests. Nearly 6,000 fans, a sellout crowd, were treated to a barnburner on Tuesday.

Basran kept his team in the game early, with Kamloops feeding off the energy in the building to outplay and outshoot the visitors 17-7 in the first period.

The dam broke in the second period, when Kyrell Sopotyk danced off the point toward goal and wired a shot through a screen to beat Basran at 4:11.

“It’s crazy,” Sopotyk said. “The fans were so loud. It just fuelled my energy. Lots of people say every game has been a Game 7. We took that to heart and didn’t want it to finish.”

Kamloops seemed dead in the water after a 5-0 home loss to the Vancouver Giants on March 6, seven points out of playoff position with six games to play.

The Blazers picked up 11 of a possible 12 points to finish the regular season and advance to the play-in game, with four of those points earned in games against the Rockets.

Mark Liwiski flicked a sneaky backhand past Blazers’ netminder Dylan Garand at 7:56 of the first frame to tie the game at 1-1, the last marker before Mohr’s game-winner at 6:10 of the third period.

“Every win was like winning a playoff game,” Mohr said. “We’re only getting started.”

Garand, who replaced an injured Dylan Ferguson during the March 6 loss to Vancouver, has been outstanding in relief and was formidable again on Tuesday.

The 16-year-old Victoria product helped quell a strong Rockets’ effort in the second period and finished the game with 27 saves.

Blazers’ head coach Serge Lajoie said Ferguson remains out with a lower-body injury on a day-to-day basis, but opted not to comment on who will start this weekend if the 20-year-old from Lantzville is available.

“I want to give full credit to Dylan Garand,” Lajoie said. “He’s been absolutely phenomenal. We’ll leave it at that.”

Basran, who had been rock solid through two periods, was at fault on the next two Kamloops goals, with giveaways behind his own net leading to short-handed markers for the home team.

“He’s young,” Rockets’ head coach Adam Foote said of his 17-year-old netminder, noting there may also have been miscommunication from defencemen. “He gave us a chance. You saw the barrage of shots in the first period.

“He gave us chance to stay in that game and make it 1-1. That’s just a young goalie.”

Connor Zary capitalized on the Basran mistake at 8:44 of the third period and Stuart did the same less than two minutes later to cap a frenzied window of hockey on Mark Recchi Way.

"I knew Zary just scored a goal exactly like that and I knew I had to be quick," Stuart said. "He [Basran] tried to get in front of me, but I was able to get around him."

Kamloops captain Jermaine Loewen added an empty-net marker at 18:29.

“It feels fricking amazing,” Loewen said. “It’s going to take me a few minutes to process this. It’s so surreal.

“There have been many battles, many times where things seem to just not go our way against them. Tonight, the course changed and we found a way.”

Lajoie has helped guide a seemingly floundering team into the post-season, an accomplishment that was far more than a longshot only two weeks ago.

“I’d like to think I was hired here and signed a long-term contract because nothing is built in one year,” Lajoie said when asked about dealing with pressures of being a rookie head coach in the WHL.

“I shared my vision with [Blazers’ GM] Matt Bardsley. If anybody needs to look any further, all they need to look at is that third period. That’s exactly the type of team that I can coach and that we’ve been building toward.

“That’s just the framework I wanted. The players are really responsible for putting the work in and buying in to what we’re selling.”

© Kamloops This Week


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