Thunderbirds and lightning ripped through Kamloops on Tuesday, electrocuting Blazers, raining cats and dogs on NorthPaws and washing out hopes of a famous night in Tournament Capital sports.
The Seattle Thunderbirds — who have survived five elimination games in the 2022 playoffs — became the first team in Western Hockey League history to win two Game 7s on the road in one post-season, advancing to the league final with a 3-2 win over hometown Kamloops at Sandman Centre.
“You just won’t die!” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette yelled to his players, whose response was stirring enough to shake sticks that leaned against the dressing room door.
The T-Birds will square off against the Oil Kings in the best-of-seven WHL final, with Game 1 slated for Friday in Edmonton.
Thunder, lightning and extremely heavy rainfall rolled into the River City on Tuesday afternoon, forcing the postponement of the first West Coast League baseball contest in Kamloops NorthPaws’ history.
The club rescheduled its home-and-franchise opening contest for Wednesday at Norbrock Stadium and left the Blazers to salvage what was left of Terrific Tuesday.
“There is a lot of hurt,” a solemn Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston told KTW after the game. “Guys are really disappointed.”
Frenetic and angsty, the first five minutes of the do-or-die contest produced only one shot and one save from Dylan Garand, who turned aside Jordan Gustafson, the T-Birds’ forward from Ardrossan, Alta.
Thomas Milic answered in the early goaltending duel with a stop on hometown dynamo Logan Stankoven, who failed in his attempt to trick the Seattle netminder with a quick release.
“To lose the last two games, it’s disappointing for us,” said sullen Stankoven, who had 17 goals and 31 points in 17 playoff games. “For myself, I wasn’t able to contribute the way I wanted to, so at a loss for words right now.”
Perhaps the Blazers had an edge in the early-game anxiousness department in that Fraser Minten does not appear to have nerves.
The Yaletown product Minten, who nabbed a game-winning shorthanded goal to put the Vancouver Giants to sleep in Round 2, opened the scoring with a high shot in tight on Milic, the 6-foot backstop from Coquitlam.
“We’ve seen it all,” O’Dette said. “We’ve been down. All sorts of adversity through the year. Going down one goal is not going to stop us.”
Seattle, which came back from a 3-1 series deficit to Portland in Round 2, quickly recovered from the early setback after a couple of stops by Milic, who foiled Stankoven and linemate Luke Toporowski.
Stankoven and Toporowski, the Blazers’ leading scorers, combined for 13 points in the first three games of the series and three points the rest of the way.
“These are excellent players,” O’Dette said. “We were fortunate enough to slow them down. We made some adjustments. Switched up the personnel or focused certain personnel on them.”
Clouston said both players defended well and were registering shots and earning chances, but bounces were not going their way.
“There were some looks in the last two or three games, it’s incredible a few of those pucks didn’t go in,” Clouston said. “Point-blank, goal-mouth chances. There’s a post and a crossbar. It’s inches. It was a hard-fought series. It’s going to hurt for a little while.”
Reese Belton hauled down Lukas Svejkovsky and was assessed what turned out to be the only penalty of the game. Belton had just taken his seat in the sin bin when Jared Davidson’s one-time effort tied the game at 1-1 at 15:47 of the first period.
“The character in that room is something I’ve never experienced before,” T-Birds’ captain Tyrel Bauer said, noting his team’s heavy, physical play was effective and wore down the Blazers. “You know how everybody says on the championship teams, it’s the closest they’ve ever been? It’s true. We love each other too much to quit and go away.”
Clouston does not feel Seattle’s size and physicality was the difference in the series.
“No,” he said. “Not when it’s a seven-game series and it’s one goal. It’s hard to point to one thing. There was a power-play goal. We didn’t get any chances. We got away from it a little bit in the second period.”
Svejkovsky, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ prospect, was gifted a turnover in the Kamloops zone early in the second period, a present shipped to Davidson, whose second of the night gave the visitors a 2-1 lead.
Seattle poured it on.
Garand staved off the buzzing Birds temporarily, keeping his club in the game, but was eventually beaten by Washington Capitals’ prospect Henrik Rybinski.
Svejkovsky collected his third helper on the goal that catapulted the visitors into the second intermission with a 3-1 lead.
“We had a lot of confidence after that Portland series, being down 3-1,” said Svejkovsky, whose T-Birds outshout the Blazers 20-7 in the second period. “This team has so much heart. I think we can overcome anything.”
The highlight of the third period was a bone-crunching bodycheck delivered by Stankoven, who trucked Jeremy Hanzel and left the Seattle defenceman in a heap on the ice.
Kamloops pressed and tried to gather momentum after the hit, but Milic was in a stingy mood and puck luck was not on the home team’s side.
With the Blazers’ net empty and an extra attacker on the ice, Daylan Kuefler scored with seven seconds remaining in the third period, his 10th goal of the post-season triggering a frantic finish.
The Blazers pushed quickly up ice off the draw, but the equalizer never came.
“I mean, obviously, it sucks for them, but it feels great for us,” T-Birds D-man Sawyer Minio, who is from Kamloops, said when asked how it feels to ruin a perfectly good sports night in his hometown. “I’m speechless right now. Can’t describe how happy we are.”
Milic stopped 33 shots to pick up the victory between the pipes, while Garand made 34 saves in a losing effort.
“The boys are pretty deflated,” said Blazers’ defenceman Quinn Schmiemann, who has aged out of junior hockey. “It’s tough when you suffer a Game 7 loss. Four years being here. I got drafted here. It’s the best time of my life. I loved playing here. I loved the city of Kamloops, the fans. It’s an A-class organization.”
Schmiemann will not be around in 2023, when Kamloops plays host to the Memorial Cup.
Stankoven is already thinking about hoisting it.
“We don’t want to be the team that just gets to host it,” Stankoven said. “We want to make sure we win our way all the way to the Memorial Cup.
“It’s just super disappointing right now. I thought we had the group that could have done something special this year.”