You’re supposed to save your game-winning, buzzer-beating goals for March Madness, not opening night.
But Dillon Hamaliuk and the Kelowna Rockets will take them any time of the season.
Hamaliuk, playing his first game with the Rockets, scored the winner as overtime expired to give the Rockets a 4-3 win over the Spokane Chiefs on Saturday night at Prospera Place.
“It was, like, the best worst game for me, honestly,” he said. “I’ve still got to clean up a lot of things.”
Yikes, you can only imagine how his “best best” games will look then. He scored twice and had two assists to open the WHL season. He almost had a hat trick, but had a goal waved off for goaltender interference late in the first period.
That was ages ago, though, and nobody is going to remember the one that got away. Instead, hockey fans in Kelowna will be telling tales of when Hamaliuk scored falling to the ice, sweeping a second rebound into the net past a sprawling Spokane Chiefs goaltender a fraction of a second before the final horn sounded.
If it was horse racing, he’d have won by a nose. Sprinters use more time to break the 100-metre dash world record.
“I thought it was going to be just like the first one, and it wasn’t going to count for goalie interference, or something,” said Hamaliuk, who came to Kelowna in an off-season trade from the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“I was kind of lucky, there,” he said.
Yeah, but luck is just hard work and opportunity combined, isn’t it? And Hamaliuk and the new Rockets certainly worked for their first win.
His goal was a satisfying cap to what was your typical opening-night affair: glimpses of high-energy hockey dotted between long stretches of sometimes choppy shinny.
Kaedan Korczak and Kyle Topping, with one assist, also scored for the Rockets. Leif Mattson had two helpers and goalie Roman Basran faced 28 shots.
Filip Kral, Michael King and Jake McGrew, with an assist, scored for Spokane. Adam Beckman had two assists himself. Campbell Arnold turned aside 30 of 34 shots he faced for Spokane (1-1).
For the 5,302 fans in attendance, it was the first look at a team that will host the Memorial Cup tournament in May.
What did they learn from Game 1? Well, the power play was lethal. Kelowna was three-for-four with an extra man. Hamaliuk was as-advertised, and used his body to create chances.
Basran looks much improved, and there are plenty of role players who will need to put up some offence for this team to survive deep into the playoffs.
If there was one area that jumped out, it was the lack of secondary scoring. Veterans Mattson, Topping and Hamaliuk accounted for the bulk of the chances. Players like Alex Swetlikoff, Trevor Wong and Mark Liwiski were good, but didn’t find the scoresheet.
Topping opened the scoring on a first-period power play, but give Mattson as much credit for setting him up to score. Mattson parked himself to Arnold’s right along the goal line. Hamaliuk hit him with a pass, and Mattson as quickly redirected it to Topping in the slot. He one-timed it, and the Rockets had their first goal of the season.
The Rockets thought they had doubled their lead with 90 seconds to play in the first period when Hamaliuk appeared to tip a point shot past Arnold.
But the referee immediately waved it off and banished Hamaliuk to the penalty box for goalie interference.
It looked like Hamaliuk clipped Campbell’s skate as the Rockets’ forward cut to the front of the net.
That the Rockets didn’t fold their tent was encouraging to coach Adam Foote.
“Last year, we might have broke if things like that didn’t go our way early,” he said. “It’s a good sign that we hung in there.”
There were actually many chances for the Rockets to break in this one.
The Chiefs tied the score 7:38 into the second period. Beckman set McGrew free on a partial breakaway from the blue line. He kept the puck on his backhand, and handcuffed Basran with a shot that squeezed between the goaltender’s body and arm for a 1-1 score.
That McGrew found himself with so much space, and no Rockets around him, will certainly be reviewed at practice this week.
King gave Spokane the lead thanks to another free chance from in close. The puck bounced away from a Rockets defender behind his own net. King was there, skated across goal and managed a weak shot that Basran stopped. The rebound, however, was there for the taking and King made it 2-1.
The Chiefs appeared to have figured something out in the second period. As “polite” as they were in the first, they were more willing to take liberties in the second.
Kelowna wasn’t without chances, but Arnold made two improbable saves on consecutive two-on-one breaks late in the middle period.
Arnold may have even triggered a late scrum after he made his second outlandish save with 13 seconds to play. It proved costly for the Rockets.
As players from both teams shoved along the glass near Kelowna’s bench, it was Topping the referee chose to pay the heaviest price with a 10-minute misconduct.
Despite missing the veteran scorer for half the final period, the Rockets tied the game shortly after the infraction expired.
Thankfully for Kelowna, Spokane’s Luke Toporowski took a cross-checking penalty.
The power play followed the same pattern as the first goal, but when Spokane forced the Rockets off the goal line, Hamaliuk found space in the slot to make it 2-2.
Kral looked to have scored the winner when he lasered a wrist shot into the top corner with a little over five minutes to play. It was a power-play goal for a Spokane team that was one-for-two with the extra attacker.
That only set up the heroics, however. Korczak — fresh off NHL training camp with the Vegas Golden Knights — took a shot from near the left point that navigated past bodies in front to make it 3-3 with less than 90 seconds left in regulation.
With Kelowna losing star defenceman Lassi Thomson this off-season (he’s chosen to stay in his native Finland), Korczak will have to shoulder more of an offensive role.
“I’m adjusting well to it, I think,” he said. “That experience in Vegas really helped me a lot. I’m fortunate for the opportunity.”
There were some reasonable chances during the three-on-three overtime, but both goalies earned their keep to set up Hamaliuk’s winner.
He doesn’t want the next game to follow the same pattern, however. Hamaliuk said he’s anxious to see improvements as the team jells.
“We have a lot of cleaning up to do, still,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a terrific team.”
AFTERBURNERS — The Rockets are still without ace Nolan Foote. He remains with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL team’s training camp. … They split faceoffs: Kelowna, 32; Spokane, 33. … The Rockets play three games next weekend: a Sept. 28 home game against the Everett Silvertips is sandwiched between roadies against the Kamloops Blazers and Vancouver Giants. … The 50/50 draw was a little over $7,300.