Rockets battle Warriors

Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman Josh Brook takes the puck away from Kelowna Rockets forward Kyle Crosbie during the first period of Wednesday’s game, which saw Moose Jaw beat Kelowna 5-1.

On a day when the Kelowna Rockets said goodbye to a veteran leader, a former Rockets goaltender made a triumphant return in a 5-1 victory for the Moose Jaw Warriors.

Brodan Salmond was sharp early on and finished with 18 saves for the visiting Warriors, who have lost only three times on the road this season.

“It was pretty exciting,” said Salmond. “I had this one circled on my calendar for a while and the guys went out and played hard for me. They knew it was a special game for me.”

Moose Jaw opened the scoring at 4:08 of the first period with some quick puck movement deep in the Rockets’ zone. Luke Ormsby and Keenan Taphorn worked the puck into the slot where Carson Denomie swept the puck past Roman Basran. For his part, Basran stopped 10-of-11 shots in the first frame.

Salmond, who appeared in 59 games for the Rockets including playoffs, is now 13-4-3-1 as a member of the Warriors. The 20-year-old has compiled a 2.83 goals-against average this season.

The Rockets’ struggles came to a head in the second stanza, particularly during a three-minute stretch that provided a microcosm of this challenging campaign.

With Warriors forward Alec Zawatsky serving a slashing minor, the Kelowna power play dominated. During the first 1:25 with the man advantage, Kyle Topping, Nolan Foote, Liam Kindree and Leif Mattson created at least four glorious scoring opportunities, but couldn’t solve Salmond.

The second power-play unit took over and hemmed in the Warriors, creating another pair of quality chances.

A minute later, a hooking call sent Kelowna forward Michael Farren to the sin bin and 17 seconds into the power play, Josh Brook and Jett Woo worked the puck to Justin Almeida and the former Prince George Cougars forward beat Basran to make it 2-0 at 15:08 of the second period.

Woo then struck with 24 seconds remaining in the middle frame, firing a point shot past a screened Basran to take a 3-0 lead to the dressing room.

“The guys need one of those to go in right now,” Rockets head coach Adam Foote said of his team’s misfortunes. “They have to keep fighting. We did get our chances.”

Moose Jaw went ahead 4-0 when defenceman Drae Gardiner netted his first WHL goal at 8:17 of the third period. Danill Stepanov made it 5-0 at 11:20, with a goal that ended Basran’s night. James Porter came in to mop up.

Kyle Topping beat Salmond with three minutes to play to break the shutout bid, scoring his 16th goal of the season on a backhander.

“I said to him after, ‘hey, you couldn’t just let me have it, huh?’” Salmond laughed when asked about Topping’s late tally. “It was funny, I probably should have had that one, but we got the win, so it doesn’t matter.”

The Warriors, now 23-11-5-2, are 2-0 to start their seven-game road trip through B.C. and Alberta. In fact, Moose Jaw will play 10 off its next 11 games on the road.

Kelowna drops to 17-22-3-1 with its sixth straight loss to start 2019 and remains seven points behind the Victoria Royals for second place in the B.C. Division.

An already tough week for the Rockets gets tougher on the weekend with the top two teams in the WHL on the slate.

After a road trip to Everett on Friday for a tilt against the Silvertips, Kelowna returns home to host the Prince Albert Raiders on Saturday evening.

Erik Gardiner retires

Earlier in the day, Rockets forward Erik Gardiner announced his retirement from hockey.

“Due to health and personal reasons, I thought it was time to step away,” Gardiner said in a prepared statement.

“I want to focus on different things and take care of myself,” he added. “I want to thank the Kelowna Rockets, my family and the Western Hockey League for allowing me the chance to live out my dream of playing major junior hockey.”

Gardiner, an assistant captain this season, appeared in 129 games with the Rockets. He scored 16 goals and added 34 assists.

One of the highlights for Gardiner was the arrival in Kelowna of his older brother Reid, whose playing rights were acquired in a trade-deadline deal with the Prince Albert Raiders on Jan. 6, 2017. The Rockets advanced to the Western Conference final that season before being eliminated by the Seattle Thunderbirds. Reid Gardiner was named Kelowna’s playoff MVP.

That marked the first time the Gardiner brothers, who grew up in Humboldt, Sask., played on the same junior team.

While Erik called it a career on Wednesday, Reid went ballistic during an ECHL game in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The elder Gardiner, who is riding a 17-game point streak, scored three times and added an assist as his Kalamazoo Wings knocked of the Komets, 10-8. Kalamazoo is affiliated with the Utica Comets, the Vancouver Canucks’ farm team in the American Hockey League.

Speaking of the Comets, another Rockets alum netted his first professional goal on Wednesday night when forward Kole Lind scored what stood up as the winner for Utica in a 5-4 victory over the Syracuse Crunch. Lind’s goal made it 5-2 in the second period before the Crunch, featuring former Rockets captain Cal Foote, rallied to within one in the third period.

ICE CHIPS: Moose Jaw outshot Kelowna 29-19. . . . Three stars were Woo, Salmond and Brook. . . . Moose Jaw went 1-for-4 on the power play. Kelowna was 0-2. . . . Rockets scratched RD Matt Barberis (injured). The 20-year-old veteran of 170 WHL games was claimed off waivers on Jan. 10. He has not played since Nov.18 as a member of the Vancouver Giants. . . . Attendance was 4,754. Through 19 home dates, average attendance is 4,713 per game. . . . The Rockets plan to honour Josh Gorges before puck-drop on Saturday. The 34-year-old from Kelowna announced his retirement earlier this week from the National Hockey League.

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