The Peterborough Petes turned out the lights on the Kamloops Blazers’ push for their fourth Memorial Cup, eliminating the hosts with an overtime "heartbreaker" Thursday and sucking the life out of Sandman Centre.
The OHL-champion Petes defeated the Blazers 5-4 in a tiebreaker game to advance to Friday’s semifinal.
J.R. Avon’s overtime winner came seconds after Kamloops defenceman Olen Zellweger nearly blew the roof off Sandman Centre with a chance of his own. Peterborough’s Owen Beck dashed the other way and flipped a pass to Avon, who beat Dylan Ernst to end the Blazers season.
“I got through the last guy, in alone. I got a weaker shot off the pad, but I need to score there. I need to end the game — I know I can,” Zellwegger said.
“I know it puts a forward in a tough position playing defence, but if I’m willing to go in and make those moves I need to finish it off.”
The Blazers, to a man, were devastated and at a loss for words following the defeat.
“That’s a heartbreaker,” Blazers head coach Shaun Clouston said after the game.
“We fought hard today, we really fought hard. The game got away from us a little in the second period. It’s a heartbreaker and I feel for the guys. They put a lot into it.”
Overtime didn’t seem possible after another adversarial second period. But the Blazers regrouped, managed pucks and played a more sound game in the third, which started with Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Fraser Minten ringing a bullet of a shot off the crossbar.
“It would have been awesome if it was a couple inches lower,” Minten said of the chance. “I saw an opening there and shot it, but there were a lot of chances for lots of guys throughout the game.”
From that moment on, the third period and overtime were everything that makes sports great — crisp plays, nail-biting moments, end-to-end chances and the threat of knowing that one goal would end someone’s season.
Blazers captain Logan Stankoven, who hoped to raise the Memorial Cup in his hometown, was emotional on the ice after the game.
“I honestly had a lot of fun until [we lost],” the blue-chip Dallas Stars prospect said after the game, surely his last in a Blazers uniform.
“It’s always fun when it’s a close game. I thought we controlled most of the possession in overtime but we just couldn’t put it away. It’s a fun game to be a part of but obviously it would be nice to be on the other side of it.”
Avon nearly ended overtime several minutes earlier on a pass from Tucker Robertson, but Ernst’s backstroke save somehow kept the puck out of the net.
While the final blow came 10:54 into overtime, much of the Blazers' demise can be traced back to a turbulent second period, where they melted away a three-goal lead and gave a never-say-die Petes team new life.
“When you play championship teams and really good teams, I think that it takes your absolute best and for different reasons, a little bit of puck management at times, it’s hard to stay in the battle and stay in the battle,” Clouston said.
“My hat’s off to the other three championship teams — they’re awesome teams and they made it really hard. The other message in [the dressing room] was that we can all learn from that. These are young athletes that are going to go on and play pro and this hurts a ton right now. A lot of the time, that is where you can learn and grow the most.”
The turning point came in the second when Chase Stillman trucked Matthew Seminoff in the slot, just as the Dallas Stars’ prospect was following through on a shot. Without hesitation, Caeden Bankier jumped to his teammate’s defence and dropped the mitts. Stillman got the better of Bankier and took him down with a couple heavy right hands.
Graduating 20-year-old Ryan Hofer made a few brilliant, hard-working plays to kill the ensuing Bankier instigating penalty while Seminoff dusted himself off down the tunnel.
Seminoff's first shift back from the bone-crunching hit appeared to energize the Blazers. Keeping the puck alive in the Peterborough zone, Seminoff found Logan Bairos at the point, and he lofted it into the back of the Petes net.
The high Bairos was riding from his first of the postseason didn’t last long. He coughed the puck up to Peterborough’s Brennan Othmann three minutes later and it quickly ended up behind Ernst.
Bairos looked to skate the puck out of the zone but got stripped from behind by Othmann, turned around and roofed it to cut the Blazers lead in half.
Momentum wasn't kind to the Blazers this tournament and continued to trend in the wrong direction to close out the second stanza.
With the trustworthy Zellwegger in the box for a questionable delay of game penalty, Sam Mayer fired a one-timer past Ernst to get the Petes within a goal.
A minute later, Robertson feathered a pass through Zellwegger’s skates. With one hand fending off the back-checking Hofer, Brian Zanetti used the other one to deftly tip the puck past Ernst to tie the game 4-4 late in the second period.
The middle frame was a far cry from the first period, which was all Blazers but for an early Peterborough goal. Stankoven, Zellweger and Harrison Brunicke scored to give the Blazers a 3-1 lead by the time the first intermission rolled around, and Logan Bairos made it 4-1 early in the second.
The scrappy Petes had been down that road before, though. They battled back repeatedly in their run through the OHL playoffs and didn’t falter after dropping their first two games of the Memorial Cup.
They will now have to defeat a major-junior juggernaut if they want a shot at Peterborough's second Memorial Cup title. They will play the WHL-champion Seattle Thunderbirds in Friday’s semifinal.
“We just kept talking on the bench to stay with it. We felt we had a very good start in the first 11 or 12 minutes, but then a bit of the ghosts from the other night crept in when they scored a couple goals and we had to reset,” Petes head coach Rob Wilson said after the game.
“That’s our game — the muddier the water, the better it is for us.”
Zellweger said it was a tough pill to swallow.
“We’re all disappointed. I thought our team deserved that one, I thought we had a strong effort tonight. But to lose like that in overtime really stings,” he said.
“I’m proud to say I am a Blazer. It was unbelievable playing here. The fans were unbelievable. They were with us through the whole season — so loud, so into the game.”
The winner of Friday’s semifinal will advance to take on the QMJHL-champion Quebec Remparts in Sunday’s championship game.