Raw emotion was to be expected.
The Seattle Thunderbirds doubled the Kamloops Blazers 4-2 on Monday at Sandman Centre, the victory securing a 4-2 triumph in the best-of-seven WHL Western Conference Championship series.
“I’m not going to answer that one,” Shaun Clouston, head coach and general manager of the Blazers, said when asked to relay the feeling in the dressing room. “That one’s a given. We just lost in the conference final.”
The defeat was crushing, an abrupt end to a quest for vengeance that began one year ago, when the T-Birds ousted the Blazers in the 2022 conference final, with the knockout blow coming in Game 7, a 3-2 victory at Sandman Centre.
“Super disappointing,” said Blazers’ captain Logan Stankoven, who had nine points, all assists, in the series. “I wasn’t able to contribute this series as much as I would have liked, so frustrating. It’s kind of like last year, a close game going into the third and we just couldn’t get it done, so it’s frustrating.”
Winnipeg will play host to Seattle in Game 1 of the league championship series on Friday, May 12, with the winner of the best-of-seven affair advancing to the Memorial Cup tournament in Kamloops.
The host Blazers and the champions of the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will compete for the national title from May 26 to June 4.
“We showed signs of a mature team to get back on the horse and prepare to play a tough game tonight,” said T-Birds’ head coach Matt O’Dette, whose club fell 4-2 to Kamloops on Saturday in Kent, Wash. “Hats off to Kamloops. They’re a really good team. That was a heck of a battle. We’re happy to be moving on.”
A question mark lingered beside Dylan Sydor’s name on pre-game lineup sheets, the punctuation indicating his status for the game was uncertain, with Nathan MacPherson-Ridgewell and his voluptuous mullet tabbed to make their series debut if the Kamloopsian forward was unable to return to the ice after warm-up.
The business was in front of the net and the party was in the back of it at 15:57 of the first frame, when Sydor — healthy enough to go — found a pocket of space to linger, an extra-split second to discharge a hometown howitzer high glove on six-foot Seattle goaltender Thomas Milic.
They heard the roar on Mark Recchi Way. Sandman Centre shook.
“It’s not good,” Sydor said of the emotional state of the dressing room after the game. “It’s definitely fuel to the fire. We’re lucky enough to get that second chance in a couple weeks here, so we’re going to do everything we can to be ready.”
Kamloops, outshot 13-5 in the period, took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, despite failing to convert on two power play attempts.
“It’s a big game. We are on the brink of elimination. We knew what we had to do, but we didn’t play our best tonight when it was needed,” Sydor said. “I’m not sure [why]. We’ve got to do a better job in the locker room preparing, not being satisfied, ever. It didn’t go our way tonight.”
When Arizona Coyotes’ prospect Dylan Guenther found Reid Schaefer with a crisp pass on a 2-on-1 early in the second frame, the Nashville Predators’ prospect looked certain to light the lamp.
A stellar pad save from Kamloops netminder Dylan Ernst kept Schaefer from scoring, the lunging stop drawing a chant — “Whose house? Ernie’s house!” from the crowd.
“He was really good again for us tonight,” Stankoven said. “If he can play like that, he gives us a chance to win every night. That can be the difference in the series sometimes. You can’t expect him to stop everything. We’ve got to do a better job in front of him sometimes.”
Seattle dominated the first half of the second period and was rewarded when Gracyn Sawchyn won a battle on the boards and slipped a pass to Jared Davidson, whose shot from the faceoff dot fooled Ernst.
Smothering defence, good puck management, ample time in the offensive zone and strong forechecking seemed to wear down the Blazers.
“It took everybody,” O’Dette said. “It was hard to get matchups. They did a really good job of keeping us off balance as far as when their top guys were going to be on the ice, so every line had a hand in playing against their top guys. Stankoven’s a great player. You have to be really aware when he’s on the ice. Same with Zellweger and he was all over the place in this series.”
The Blazers’ captain told reporters he fell ill on Sunday.
“Not too sure how everyone else was feeling, but I wasn’t feeling my best,” said Stankoven, who registered a team-leading 30 points in 14 playoff games. “I was stuck in bed all day yesterday, sick. I felt better today, but I wasn’t able to bring my best tonight and it showed. It must have been something that I ate. I don’t know if it was the stomach flu or what it was, but I was the only guy that had it … but you can’t make excuses. When the game is on the line, you’ve got to show up.”
The T-Birds poured it on in the third period, looking emboldened while the Blazers appeared sluggish.
“They’re a great hockey team, so you have to give them credit where credit is due,” Clouston said. “I don’t think we played our best. I think we left a little bit on the table, but that’s the way it goes. You’d have to be a psychologist and ask each guy individually why they weren’t 100 per cent. It’s a tough sport. It’s a tough game. They’re young men. They’re human beings. It’s really, really tough to be at 100 per cent, but that’s what it takes.”
T-Birds’ defenceman Sawyer Mynio of Kamloops nabbed the go-ahead goal at 5:33, his point shot grazing Blazers’ defenceman Aapo Sarell before fluttering over Ernst and into the net.
“It was pretty sweet,” said Mynio, who broke a 30-game scoreless drought with the biggest goal of his career to date. “I didn’t even know it went in until I saw [Nico] Myatovic chasing at me. It was huge scoring in the hometown. It’s going to be a good bus ride. Maybe we’ll stop for candy or something.”
O’Dette said Mynio, who was either sick or suffering from an injury, was nearly scratched for the game.
“Sometimes, when you battle through it, you get rewarded and good things can happen to you,” O’Dette said. “It was awesome to see that.”
The relentless Seattle attack appeared to wear down the Blazers, who defended poorly on Kyle Crnkovic’s goal at the 10-minute mark of the third period.
“It’s a tiring series. I’m sure guys were tired,” Clouston said. “The mind drives the body. We looked a little better in the last few minutes, at times. We had some energy. I don’t think it was just fatigue, but fatigue obviously plays a factor. Both teams were in the exact same situation.”
Home fans were given hope when Matthew Seminoff tallied on the power play at 18:17 of the third period, the goal coming with Ernst on the bench and an extra attacker on the ice.
Ryan Hofer came close to snaring a late equalizer, but the chance went begging and Schaefer’s clearance trickled into the empty Blazers’ net.
“It’s a tough ending, my third chance now in the playoffs,” Stankoven said. “It just felt a lot like last year, a real sour taste in our mouth, but we have the tournament coming up now, so can’t dwell on it for too long.”
Seattle was 0-for-1 on the power play. Kamloops was 1-for-3.
Milic stopped 28 saves to pick up the victory between the pipes, while Ernst made 39 saves in a losing effort.
Clouston was asked for turning points in the series. He immediately cited Game 2, a 4-3 overtime loss in Kent, Wash.
“We had some really good looks,” Clouston said. “We had three Grade A chances in overtime. So that’s definitely one. The start of the third period [on Monday], they pushed and we made an error or two that cost us.”
The Blazers have time to recharge before playing host to the winner of the QMJHL on May 26 at Sandman Centre.
“Extremely disappointed,” Clouston said when asked how much he feels for his players. “There are guys that gave it everything they’ve got. I don’t want to take anything away from the season. It was an awesome season. We did what we needed to do. We got through the first two rounds, played really well. We’re close, but close isn’t where we want to be. We’ve got two-and-a-half weeks to get rested and regroup and get ready for the tournament.”