The Pursuit continues - that is, for the elusive title at The Daily Courier's 34th annual Kelowna International Elite Midget Tournament.
Backstopped by all-star goaltender Cody Porter, Winfield-based Pursuit of Excellence scored a 3-1 semifinal victory over the host and previously undefeated Fripp Warehousing Jr. Rockets on Saturday night at Rutland Arena. With the win, POE advanced to today's championship game against the Thunder Bay Kings, who beat the Burlington Eagles 4-2 earlier Saturday. The title contest is slated for 12:30 p.m. at Memorial Arena.
"Our guys played really well, but give Kelowna credit as well," said POE coach Ryan Wade, whose club opened the scoring in the second period and went ahead 2-0 early in the third before hanging on thanks to an empty-net goal with 11 seconds left.
"They got one late and made it interesting, but our guys stuck with the game plan and pulled it out."
That it was an all-Kelowna semifinal with a local club assured a shot at today's championship was a dream scenario - for both teams and tournament organizers.
"These are the times you wish you were playing again," Wade said prior to last night's semifinal. He played five WHL seasons with the Rockets. "It'll be especially exciting for both these teams, with lots of local kids and hopefully a good-sized crowd, so it should be a lot of fun for everybody."
"It's great for everybody involved to be able to have a local team in the final," said Rockets coach Eric Blais, noting a 3A Kelowna team had never reached the title game, though the 4A Okanagan Rockets won the 2010 title. "I don't want to get ahead of myself, but that'd be pretty wonderful."
POE's roster only features six players from the Central Okanagan, while others, such as Fabio Arnold, hail from as far away as Switzerland. Despite playing in different leagues, POE and the 3A Rockets had faced off once before this season, resulting in a 3-3 exhibition draw in December.
"They're skilled and they're fast, but we match-up well against them," Wade said prior to their semifinal rematch. "We're a well-balanced attack that likes to get our defence to jump up into the rush and attack with speed.
"Once you get to the semifinals of a tournament this big, all the teams are capable of winning. It's just a matter of getting the right bounces and special teams are going to be huge."
POE's only setback was a 5-2 loss to top-ranked Thunder Bay on Thursday morning, but they bounced back to score three straight wins and secure the second seed in the Coast Capri Division.
For the 3A Rockets, this year's tournament was a drastic turnaround from last year, when they went 0-5 and finished last overall in the 12-team field. This year, they ran the round-robin table as the only 5-0 team and exceeded even their own expectations in winning The Daily Courier Division.
"I'm really proud of the boys. They've stepped up and played really well, and done everything we've asked," Blais said. "I thought the first three (round-robin games) were winnable and then if we could steal one of those two, I thought that would get us through."
The Rockets avenged last year's 10-0 beating at the hands of the Notre Dame Argos by defeating the Notre Dame Hounds 4-1 on Friday night. Kelowna then doubled Burlington 6-3 on Saturday morning before turning its attention toward the playoffs.
"I'd just be happy to be in the final," Blais said during the second intermission of the early semifinal, which saw Thunder Bay and Burlington tied 2-2 through 40 minutes. "They're both very similar - big, strong, fast teams. Whoever gets to the final will have their hands full against the winner of this game."
Thunder Bay went on to win 4-2, thanks in no small part to killing its second major penalty of the game to start the third period.
After getting back to even strength, all-star forward Ryan McQueen netted the go-ahead goal on a deft deflection in the high slot with 3:40 remaining in regulation. That stood up as the winner, and the Kings added an empty-net goal in the dying seconds to punch their ticket to the final.
"Our guys just decided to dig in," said Kings coach Darrin Nicholas, whose team has developed a reputation for third-period comebacks this week, prevailing on several occasions when trailing or tied after two periods. "It was nice having that in our back pocket, knowing that we've succeeded in those situations before. We had that quiet confidence that we've been there a number of times and came out on top."
Nicholas gave props to his penalty killers and also to McQueen for notching the decisive goal.
"Ryan's a second-year player for us, and this year he's really emerged as a leader," Nicholas said. "I'm real happy for Ryan, he works hard at it and he deserves everything he's gotten. He got a similar (all-star) award at our last tournament in Sault Ste. Marie, so it's not a flash in the pan for him. He's been doing this for a few games for us."