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'Whose house? Ernie's house!' — Blazers' goaltender steals show in victory over T-Birds

Seattle leads the Western Conference final 2-1, with Game 4 slated for Thursday at Sandman Centre.
Dylan Ernst robs Brad Lambert on Tuesday at Sandman Centre.

Dylan Ernst, unproven heading into his 18-year-old campaign and trusted with the crease in a Memorial Cup season, stole the show on Tuesday at Sandman Centre.

The Kamloops Blazers’ goaltender made 22 saves — including an incredible second-period stop to maintain his club’s one-goal lead — in a 4-1 victory over the Seattle Thunderbirds in Game 3 of the best-of-seven Western Conference final.

“It was huge, honestly,” said Ernst, whose Blazers trail the series 2-1. “We can’t give them one at home.”

With about 5,200 fans clad in white, some of whom engaged in a “Let’s go Blazers” chant long before puck-drop, there was big-game energy on Mark Recchi Way, the crowd desperate to exchange anxious nerves for pure jubilation.

The Kamloops power play — which looked awful on its first attempt — provided the pop at 8:29 of the first period, when defenceman Olen Zellweger continued his otherworldly post-season with a point-shot goal.

“Zelly, what else can you say — he’s playing out of this world,” said Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston, whose club is toiling without injured defencemen Logan Bairos and Ryan Michael, neither of whom are expected to return in time for Game 4 on Thursday, a 7 p.m. start at Sandman Centre.

“We are getting some great minutes from Aapo [Sarell] and Harry [Harrison Brunicke]. Brando [Ethan Brandwood] is a warrior. Kyle [Masters] is digging in and playing hard. And to get Ryan Nolan out there for a small handful of shifts was important moving forward.”

Daylan Kuefler, a menacing pest throughout the first frame, deserved an assist for his screen of T-Birds’ netminder Thomas Milic, who entered the contest with a sparkling .949 save percentage, but could not stop Zellweger from registering his 10th goal of the playoffs.

“I thought there were lapses in execution and focus and there were times where we were flat-out losing battles,” T-Birds’ head coach Matt O’Dette said. “Both are disappointing and we haven’t had many games like that and when have, we’ve responded. That’s what we’ll need to do.”

Seattle defenceman Nolan Allan, one of 19 NHL-drafted players in the series, scored less than two minutes later to tie the game at 1-1, his shot sneaking through Ernst at the 10-minute mark of the opening stanza.

The crowd, hushed by the equalizer, began to boil when Milic, dispossessed of his goalie stick, appeared to nudge his net off its moorings to spur a stoppage in play, a penalizable offence that went unpunished.

Jakub Demek served vigilante justice.

The Slovakian import jammed in a loose puck during a confusing passage of play in which officials were hesitant to motion for a goal and the red light was late to signal.

A brief review preceded a decisive point to centre ice — good goal.

“You can’t stay down for too long in the playoffs,” Blazers’ forward Matthew Seminoff said when asked about bouncing back from a gutting 4-3 overtime loss on Sunday in Game 2 in Kent, Wash. “You’re not going to win every single game like we did the first two rounds.”

Seattle was on the power play in the second period when Ernst stole the show.

“I didn’t even see it live,” Seminoff said. “I just watched the replay after. Couldn’t believe it. It was a great save. Ernie stood on his head today. He played great, as he has all year. It was a great save at a key moment.”

A Seattle shot pinged off the back boards and boomeranged back over the net, falling dangerously onto the backpedalling backstop from Weyburn, Sask., who has Sesame Street character Ernie painted on the back his mask.

Physics dictate that momentum would on most occasions have carried or propelled the vulcanized rubber over the goal line.

But this occasion belonged to contortionist Ernst, who, with Ernie’s eyes in the back of his head, pinched the puck into his No. 35 with his mitt and fell forward to deny the T-Birds — and physics.

“I wasn’t too sure where it was,” Ernst said. “It hit off the cross bar and I felt it hit my back. I got lucky when I swung my hand around and caught it.”

Ernst shot up, prize raised high above head in glove, and drank in the chant: “Ernie! Ernie! Ernie!”

“Honestly, I wasn’t too sure if I was over the goal line or not,” Ernst said. “I was hoping. Obviously, I wasn’t.”

No goal was the call after the review, which preceded another chant: “Whose house? Ernie's house!”

“It’s pretty awesome,” Ernst said. “I didn’t hear it much last year. I didn’t play too much, but I think the team helped me out a lot today.”

The goaltender’s victims began to pile up in the second and third periods, with NHL draftees Brad Lambert, Kevin Korchinski (Ernst, swelling with confidence, was guilty of flamboyance with the glove stop on the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect) and Dylan Guenther among the stymied.

“I think I had confidence throughout the whole game, but a big save always jolts you up a little bit,” Ernst said.

The T-Birds entered the series with a power play that was clicking at a league-best 44 per cent in the playoffs. They were 0-for-3 with the man advantage on Tuesday. The Blazers were 1-for-3.

Kamloops, which coughed up a pair of two-goal leads on Sunday in Kent, finished clinically on Tuesday, limiting the T-Birds to six shots in the third period.

Ryan Hofer sealed the victory with an empty-net marker at 18:53.

Milic, who stopped 35 shots in a losing effort, was back in net when Seminoff scored less than 30 seconds later. Public-address announcer Bill O’Donovan was still announcing Hofer’s marker when Seminoff tallied to draw a deafening roar from the jubilant, white-clad crowd.

“We got better in Game 2,” Seminoff said. “We got even better today, just sticking to the process, trying to stay mentally strong, unshakeable and straight faced.

“We’ve got to keep that up, keep the pressure on them, keep the physicality up and we’ll definitely wear them down.”