UPDATE: 9:59 p.m.
If the Kamloops Blazers are going to lift the Memorial Cup this weekend for the fourth time in franchise history, they are going to have to run the CHL gauntlet.
Following the club’s 6-1 loss Wednesday night to the WHL-champion Seattle Thunderbirds at Sandman Centre, the Blazers are now staring down a potential path to the championship that demands they play four games in five nights against three formidable opponents.
Two mistakes — one accidental and one mental — in an eight-second span in the second period on Wednesday took the air out of the sold-out crowd and cost the Blazers the game.
“It wasn’t our best game,” head coach Shaun Clouston said after the game.
“I thought we looked nervous, we struggled making passes, then [Ryan Hofer] scored a big goal to make it 1-1, which was really positive — but a couple breakdowns and a turnover ends up in the back of our net.”
While Logan Bairos sat in the box for kneeing early in the second, Seattle capitalized on a failed dump-in attempt by Fraser Minten that bounced off a linesman and right to Dylan Guenther. Guenther dotted a pass to Jared Davidson, who snuck a shot past Dylan Ernst blocker side.
Eight seconds later, off a Kamloops faceoff win, Aapo Sarell, who drew back into the lineup as a result of the Kyle Masters injury, coughed the puck up behind his own net. Kyle Crnkovic pounced on it and found Jordan Gustafson in front of the net.
“We weren't in a good enough spot mentally throughout that game,” said Clouston. “I think some guys need to find a little more confidence against that team.”
From there, the Thunderbirds looked at home with the lead.
Ernst did his part to keep the game close, finishing the night with 36 saves on 42 shots. He stared down a couple of Guenther one-timers, stopped a Gustafson breakaway and made a remarkable save on a puck fluttering through the crease with a number of T-Birds looking to put it home.
Seattle made it 4-1 5:33 into the third period when Kyle Crnkovic floated a shot past a screened Ernst and Luke Prokop scored 64 seconds later to extend the lead to 5-1, capitalizing on a Connor Levis turnover.
“Rest is huge, especially in this tournament,” Prokop said.
“This time of year guys are banged up and have a lot of injuries. It’s nice for the guys to get a little bit of rest and regroup for our next game.”
Late in the third period, Reid Schaefer stepped out of the penalty box and set up Colton Dach, who used his 205-pound frame to cut across the net and score a dagger of a goal. Ernst was relieved of his duties with less than two minutes remaining, with 18-year-old Matthew Kieper closing out the game for Kamloops.
“[Ernst] has been stellar for us all year, you can’t put any fault on him,” Kamloops forward Daylan Kuefler said.
“He stood in there tonight and I know he’s going to reset and get ready for tomorrow.”
Ryan Hofer scored the lone goal for the Blazers, coming at 10:50 of the first period from Kuefler. Hofer praised Kuefler after the game.
“He is a great player. We were just trying to get lots of momentum and play hard and get into the forecheck,” he said.
“We know they can play fast when they get up ice, so try and eliminate that and get on them quick. We don’t really need to change our game plan coming into tomorrow. We just got to play hard again and keep the physicality up.”
The Blazers played games on three consecutive days once this season, back in October when they went winless against the Winnipeg Ice, Prince George Cougars and Vancouver Giants.
“We’ve done it lots this year with our western schedule with lots of travel,” Kuefler said.
“At least this time we get to stay in our own beds. We’re going to take it one game at a time. [Playing four games in five nights] is definitely a possibility and we would be OK with that.”
The road ahead for the Blazers is daunting.
On Thursday night, a tilt with the OHL champion Peterborough Petes, who have already won one do-or-die game.
The reward for dispatching the Petes would be a rematch with the Thunderbirds on Friday night — what would be the club’s third game in three nights.
Waiting patiently for the winner of Friday’s semifinal are the Quebec Remparts, who will have enjoyed four days off by the time the championship game rolls around on Sunday afternoon.
Puck drop on Thursday at Sandman Centre is 6 p.m.
UPDATE: 8:48 p.m.
The Kamloops Blazers couldn’t solve the Seattle Thunderbirds on Wednesday at Sandman Centre, surrendering five unanswered goals en route to a 6-1 loss in the round-robin finale and making their potential path to the Memorial Cup final considerably more difficult.
Ryan Hofer scored the lone goal for the Blazers. Lucas Ciona, Jared Davidson, Jordan Gustafson, Kyle Crnkovic, Luke Prokop and Colton Dach were the goal scorers fore the Thunderbirds.
The game was tied 1-1 after 20 minutes, but it did not take long for the T-Birds to jump out to a commanding lead in the second — eight seconds, to be exact.
Davidson and Gustafson scored at 6:39 and 6:47 of the middle frame to put Seattle ahead and Crnkovic, Prokop and Dach added goals in the third to make it a 6-1 final.
Thomas Milic made 29 saves on 30 shots to earn the win in net for the Thunderbirds. Dylan Ernst stopped 36 of 42 Seattle shots in a losing effort.
With the win, the T-Birds advance to Friday’s semifinal. The Blazers, meanwhile, will have to beat the Peterborough Petes (1-2) in Thursday’s tiebreaker to get another shot at Seattle.
The winner of the semifinal will play the QMJHL-champion Quebec Remparts, who finished atop the round-robin standings, in Sunday’s championship game.
ORIGINAL STORY: 5:55 p.m.
A spot in the Memorial Cup semifinal is on the line Wednesday night at Sandman Centre, where the Kamloops Blazers are taking on the WHL-champion Seattle Thunderbirds.
Both clubs are 1-1 through two games in the tournament.
While the winner will advance to Friday’s semifinal, the loser will play the OHL-champion Peterborough Petes (1-2) in a tiebreaker on Thursday. The winner of that game will play Wednesday's winner in the semifinal.
The Quebec Remparts, who won the QMJHL title, are through to Sunday’s championship game after finishing atop the round-robin standings.
The T-Birds are a familiar opponent for the Blazers. Seattle ousted Kamloops earlier this month in the WHL Western Conference championship.
Puck drop is just after 6 p.m. This story will be updated immediately following the game.