Double Blue earns huge upset victory over Rockets
|The SaskTel Centre scoreboards flashes the final of the Blades upset win.|
On Saturday at the SaskTel Centre, the Blades entered their final contest before the WHL’s Christmas break as huge underdogs against the league leading and defending league champion Kelowna Rockets. The Rockets were also rated fourth in the Canadian Hockey League's top ten rankings. After falling behind 2-0 after the opening 20 minutes, the hosts side roared back to pull out a well-earned 5-3 victory before an appreciative crowd of 3,997 spectators.
“They are a pretty phenomenal hockey team,” said Blades overage right-winger Connor Gay. “They are team that is quite offensive, and I think we stuck to our game tonight.
“We played good defence, and I couldn’t be happier that we won tonight.”
The Rockets came into “the Bridge City” with two big absences as centres Nick Merkley and Rourke Chartier were both in Finland trying to crack the final roster for Canada’s world junior team. Kelowna was also without forward Tomas Soustal, who is trying to earn a spot on the Czech Republic’s team for world juniors, and left-winger Calvin Thurkauf, who will be part of Switzerland’s team at the world juniors.
Despite the fact that foursome was overseas, the Rockets jumped ahead 2-0 on a pair of tallies coming off the stick of WHL scoring leader Tyson Baillie, who potted his first marker on a breakaway. While Kelowna held a 2-0 edge after first frame, Blades played at an even pace with the visitors.
|Blades rearguard Mitch Wheaton, right, helps with the teddy clean up.|
After the stuffed animals were cleared away, the Blades momentum continued to roll with goals coming from the sticks of captain Nick Zajac and stand out centre Cameron Hebig, which gave the hosts a 3-2 edge.
The lead didn’t last long as five seconds later Rockets left-winger Justin Kirkland put a floater past Saskatoon netminder Evan Smith, who was making his first start with the Blades after being acquired in a trade with the Victoria Royals on Dec. 10.
Before the second period ended, the Blades jumped back ahead 4-3. While working on a power play, Sloboshan got the puck down low by the right side of the Kelowna goal after a greasy bounce off the boards, and Vanscoy product made no mistake potting his second of the contest.
After jumping out to a 7-4-3 start, the Blades hit a big slide starting on Nov. 15. Saturday marked the fifth time Saskatoon has won since that date as their record improved to 13-17-3. During the skid, they often couldn’t recover after giving up the first goal of a game, so Gay was pleased his side erased a two-goal deficit on Saturday.
“There has been lots of talk about us obviously deflating after the first couple of goals get let in,” said Gay. “Lately, I think we’ve been really trying to stay positive and fighting back in games. Lately, it has been working out.
“You never want to be down in a hockey game. If you are down, you have to stay positive and you have to work hard to get back in the game, and that is what we did.”
Gay added another power-play goal at the 7:31 mark of the third to put Saskatoon up 5-3. Smith made 27 stops to pick up the win in goal.
Star netminder Jackson Whistle turned away 28 shots taking the loss in goal for the Rockets, who fell to 25-9-1 but remain first overall in the WHL.
|Evan Smith made 27 saves to earn his first win in goal for the Blades.|
“We probably put a little bit more pressure on ourselves, because our expectations are higher than they have been. There is nothing wrong with that. I think that is a great step for our guys.
“We want to have success, and we are not happy if we don’t. That to me is the type of environment you want to have especially with your young guys.”
The Blades sit ninth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, and they trail the 14-19-3 Edmonton Oil Kings by two points for eighth place and the conference’s final playoff berth. Saskatoon finished last in the entire WHL each of the past two seasons after hosting the 2013 Memorial Cup.
Woods said wins like the one his squad earned over the Rockets help his players gain confidence, but he cautioned his squad still has a lot of room for improvement.
“We are the type of team that still has a lot of growing pains,” said Woods. “We are the youngest team in the league, and I hate always bringing that up, but it is a fact.
“There are lots of things for us to learn. We just have to keep going and take in every experience and build on it. The second half is going to be a tough go.
“Hopefully, we are in some meaningful games and have a chance to battle for that last playoff spot.”
The Blades and Rockets both return to action on Dec. 27. Saskatoon travels to Prince Albert to take on the Raiders, while Kelowna heads to Kamloops to take on the Blazers.
NOTES – In the second period of Saturday’s game, Rockets defenceman Cal Foote received a major penalty and a game misconduct for a head check. That play will be automatically reviewed by the WHL office for a suspension.
Whistle stopped Blades right-winger Mason McCarty on a penalty shot late in the third period.
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