Goaltending and special teams often decide a playoff series.
That combination was the difference for the Tri-City Americans in their lopsided opening win over the Kelowna Rockets, downing the hosts 5-0 on Thursday night in front of 5,168 frustrated fans at Prospera Place.
Frustrated because a controversial call blew the game open, with Tri-City scoring three straight power-play goals in the third period — the first two during a five-minute advantage after Dillon Dube was assessed a charging major and game misconduct for colliding with Americans goaltender Patrick Dea in the dying seconds of the middle frame.
The refs ruled that contact was intentional, but it looked incidental on video review.
“It’s a tough call for us,” said Rockets captain Cal Foote. “Dillon’s doing what he’s told to do, he’s going hard to the net.”
Not surprisingly, Rockets head coach Jason Smith shared in that frustration.
“The refs made the call based on what they saw, it is what it is, can’t really say much about it,” said Smith, whose club was trailing 2-0 at the time despite outshooting the Americans 30-20 through two periods. “I know he didn’t go to the net with the intention of hitting the goaltender, that’s for sure. That’s what they called . . . but we’re past that and we’re moving on.”
That call and those goals — three in a span of two minutes 22 seconds, all with the man advantage — overshadowed a decent effort for Kelowna, which included a strong start in outshooting Tri-City 19-9 in the first period.
“Obviously it changed the momentum in the game,” Smith admitted. “We did some good things on that (penalty kill), but we made one mistake and it turned into three and the puck ended up in our net.
“That’s what happens when the momentum changes in junior hockey . . . and now it’s about how we change the momentum and get ready for the next one.”
Not being one for excuses, Smith also shifted some of the blame away from the refs.
“We got outbattled and outplayoffed, with them blocking shots and them winning face-offs and them getting to our net better than we got to their net,” said Smith.
Down the hall, the Americans were elated with the outcome.
“We’ve had a history of not doing too well in this rink, so to come in here and get the first one like that, that’s really big for us,” said Morgan Geekie, who led Tri-City in scoring in the regular season and paced this Game 1 victory with a three-point performance that included two goals. He opened the scoring with what stood up as the winner — the lone goal of the first period, at 15:22 — and netted the all-important 3-0 tally at 3:38 of the third period, finishing off a perfect passing sequence orchestrated by defenders Jusso Valimaki and Jake Bean.
As for his take on Dube’s penalty, Geekie said: “I didn’t see it too much, I saw it on the Jumbotron a little bit and heard the boos from the crowd, but that’s a little bit of their own opinion on things. He’s a good player and it was unfortunate, but I think we took advantage of it.”
Michael Rasmussen also scored twice, tacking on the 4-0 and 5-0 power-play markers, and Isaac Johnson had the 2-0 goal for Tri-City at 5:11 of the second period.
At the other end, Dea — the CHL’s reigning goaltender of the week to wrap up the regular season — stayed hot in pitching a 39-save shutout. He was named the first star but was getting treatment afterwards and thus unavailable for comment.
“Patty played unreal and stood on his head for us when we needed him to, and was just solid back there,” said Geekie.
The over-age netminder, who finished the regular season with a .913 save percentage, was tested early and often but was up to the challenge in denying the likes of Dube and Carsen Twarynski on point-blank chances.
Dea’s heroics helped the Americans weather the early storm on the road, and Geekie got them on the board by firing five-hole on James Porter from the slot. That goal occurred seconds after Kelowna’s top defenceman, Foote, was forced to make a save on Rasmussen during a scramble in the crease.
An undersized goalie by today’s standards — listed at 5-foot-11 but seemingly smaller — Dea continued to channel his inner Eric Comrie over the final 40 minutes. He was unbeatable on this night, but the Rockets still sounded optimistic about their chances going forward.
“Next game for us, we’re going to want to get in this guy’s face,” said Foote. “We’re going to want to make sure we’re in front and not let him see all the pucks flying at him. He played great . . . obviously with a shutout, he did his job. But I think things will go our way if we get more guys in front.”
“He made some saves, but I think we had some opportunities that generally we’ll capitalize on and we didn’t put them in the net,” added Smith. “That’s a credit to him, and we’ve got to fix our aiming sights a little bit and be better in the next one.”
Both teams realize it’s only one game — in this first-round, best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal — and that 5-0 score will be irrelevant once the puck drops on Game 2, set for Saturday (7:05 p.m., Prospera Place).
“The series is a long way from being over and our guys will bounce back,” assured Smith. “We’ve dealt with adversity, we’ve dealt with disappointment, and we’ll be ready to play on Saturday.”
“We can’t dwell on this game,” echoed Foote. “We’ve got to, not forget about it, but we’ve got to learn from it. We’ve got to go back and watch video and try to get better. That’s the only thing you can do right now, is just try to get better and learn from our mistakes.
“It’s nice to have a day in between games, to watch video and try to get the upper hand on these guys.”
Porter, a 17-year-old rookie making his playoff debut, stopped 27 of 32 shots in defeat.
He wasn’t at fault for many of the goals against. Johnson’s snap shot from the high slot beat Porter to the blocker side and he may have wanted that one back, but Porter rebounded with a few key saves on the ensuing shifts — stopping Geekie’s backhand deke on a breakaway moments later and getting his paddle on Rasmussen’s door-step opportunity during Tri-City’s first power play of the game to keep it a two-goal deficit for Kelowna.
Then, with the Rockets pressing on a late power play, Dube sped into the offensive zone and drove wide around a defender, cutting hard to the crease, crashing into Dea and knocking the net off.
The puck stayed out, but Dea stayed down momentarily and the officials huddled before sending Dube to an early shower.
The crowd vehemently disagreed, raining down their displeasure once video review showed Dube attempting to tuck a deke around Dea, who stood his ground but lost his helmet in tumbling backwards upon impact.
Dea was briefly tended to by Tri-City’s trainer before shaking it off and staying in the game for the remaining 10.8 seconds, then recovering during the intermission to return for the third period.
ICE CHIPS: The three stars were Dea, Geekie and Rasmussen. . . . Tri-City was 3-for-3 on the power play, while Kelowna was 0-for-4. . . . Kelowna scratched G Roman Basran (knee, indefinite), LW Wil Kushniryk, LW Colum McGauley, LHD Kyle Pow, LHD Kelvin Hair, LHD Cayde Augustine (affiliated player) and RW Dallon Wilton (AP). . . . These teams split their four-game season series, with each winning twice, including once in overtime. All four games were decided by a goal.
Americans 5, Rockets 0
KELOWNA — WHL playoffs Thursday night:
1. Tri-City, Geekie 1 (Rasmussen, Coghlan) 15:22
Penalty — Bishop Tri (slashing) 9:17.
2. Tri-City, Johnson 1 (Yaremko) 5:11
Penalties — Hilsendager Kel (high-sticking) 10:14, James Tri-City (interference) 12:30, Gatenby Tri-City (hooking) 15:37, Gatenby Tri-City (delay of game) 19:10, Dube Kel (charging, major, game misconduct) 19:49.
3. Tri-City, Geekie 2 (Valimaki, Bean) 3:38 (pp)
4. Tri-City, Rasmussen 1 (J. Topping, Geekie) 4:01 (pp)
5. Tri-City, Rasmussen 2 (Coghlan, Valimaki) 6:00 (pp)
Penalties — Skvrne Kel (high-sticking) 5:02, Sawchuk Tri-City (roughing), N. Foote Kel (high-sticking) 10:02.
Shots on goal by
Tri-City 9 11 12 — 32
Kelowna 19 11 9 — 39
Goal — Tri-City: Dea (W, 1-0-0); Kelowna: Porter (L, 0-1-0).
Power plays (goals-chances) — Tri-City: 3-3; Kelowna: 0-4.
Referees — Jeff Ingram, Steve Papp.
Linesmen — Riley Balson, Cody Wanner.
Attendance — 5,168.