The Rockets opened the regular season Friday the way they went through a four-game pre season – searching for a victory.
The Kamloops Blazers jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead, and kept the Rockets at bay the rest of the way in a 4-1 opening night victory.
Brodi Stuart had two goals and an assist to pace the Blazers. Zane Franklin and Sean Strange also scored.
Leif Mattson ruined Dylan Ferguson's shutout bid with the only Rockets goal, a power play marker midway through the third.
The Blazers were solid behind their own blueline, and the better team on the puck much of the night, as they held Kelowna to 26 shots, 11 of those in the final period when the game was already all but out of reach.
The Rockets get a chance at redemption Saturday night when they host the same Blazers in their home opener at Prospera Place.
Serge Lajoie earned his first win as a WHL head coach in the Kamloops Blazers home opener in front of a sellout crowd of 5,583 at Sandman Centre on Friday. Kamloops tallied three first-period goals and coasted to a 4-1 victory over the Kelowna Rockets, who lost many of their best players from last season to graduation or pro hockey and look poised for a rebuilding season.
Blazers netminder Dylan Ferguson made 25 saves and earned the win between the pipes, while Rockets backstop James Porter stopped 34 shots in a losing effort. Here are a few of the storylines KTW was following:
Debuts dont get much sweeter than a win over a division rival, but the pot was sweetened for Blazers rookie head coach Lajoie on Friday.
His wife, Kelly, and children — Marc, 15, and Isabelle, 17 — made the trip to Kamloops from St. Albert, Alta., to mark the occasion, showing up unannounced for a game-day surprise.
Up until last night, I was texting with my daughter and my son and they made me believe they were both getting ready for bed and they were going to get up to go to school this morning,” Lajoie said.
Lajoies blueprint for his forward group centres around finding pairs with chemistry to anchor lines.
He identified centre Orrin Centazzo and winger Brodi Stuart, both 18, early in training camp and they enjoyed a sublime start to the regular season.
Centazzo, acquired in a blockbuster deadline deal with the Everett Silvertips last season, had three assists, two of them on Stuart goals.
Centazzo on two occasions made unselfish plays to set up goals, forgoing shot opportunities to feed teammates in better positions.
Stuart benefitted once, accepting a slick pass in front of the net before beating Porter, and Centazzo, a left shot, also set up Zane Franklin, realizing the right-shot forward had a better shooting lane.
Dont expect to see much change with forward pairings when Kamloops plays hometown Kelowna on Saturday.
Connor Zary and Luc Smith, who played with Jermaine Loewen on the second line; Franklin and Kobe Mohr, who toiled with rookie centre Josh Pillar on the third line; and Ryley Appelt and Carson Denomie, who teamed with rookie Kyrell Sopotyk on the fourth line, did nothing on Friday to deter Lajoies belief in their potential.
Theyre an energy line, theyre character guys and they can move up and down your lineup, Lajoie said. I hate calling them a fourth line. Theyre a tough line to play against.
Franklin was named the games first star (Stuart was second, Centazzo third), deserving of the honour after an outstanding Blazers debut.
The 19-year-old forward from Marwayne, Alta., was one unshed pair of mitts away from a Gordie Howe hat-trick. He challenged Lassi Thomson, who turns 18 on Sept. 24, to fight after the Rockets Finnish defenceman hit Centazzo from behind.
I think I got robbed a little bit, Franklin said with a laugh. The older guy in me came out to try and stick up for him. Obviously, he didnt want to [fight]. Maybe tomorrow. Well see how it goes.
Franklin, who the Blazers acquired in a trade with the Lethbridge Hurricans on July 31, came advertised as a sandpaper-possessing forward who can score and has leadership qualities. He lived up to the billing in Game 1.
He embodies how we need to play and what Blazer hockey should be, Lajoie said of Franklin. Its a guy that loves to come to the rink. Hes not afraid of hard work. Hes not afraid to stick up for his teammates. Hes a real likeable guy.
Kamloops picked two Europeans in the CHL Import Draft this summer — a 6-foot-6, rangy defenceman, Jonas Sillanpaa, and Martin Lang, a forward from the Czech Republic who is expected to score goals.
Sillanpaa looked well ahead of Lang in the transition to the North American game. He showed he is not afraid to use his large frame and inserted himself into confrontation.
He also displayed soft hands on several occasions, including on one rush in the first period that nearly resulted in a Blazers goal.
Our expectation is that youre in every battle, said Lajoie, who said Lang should see himself as a pure shooter. You stop and battle on loose pucks. Thats an adjustment for him [Lang]. I still catch him being a more defensive style of player. I want him to be aggressive.
Luke Zazula, an 18-year-old defenceman, was spotted within spitting distance of the offensive-zone crease a few times on Friday. Expect to see more of that.
Lajoie has encouraged his defence corps to be aggressive. He doesnt want defencemen to lead the rush, but he sure as heck wants them to join it.
We want to attack in groups of five, Lajoie said. We want to forecheck in groups of five, defend in groups of five. We want to play fast and that means the defence has to be engaged.
Sean Strange was the only Blazers D-man to score a goal against the Rockets, but the pairing of Zazula and 16-year-old Quinn Schmiemann was the most dynamic defensive unit.
Schmiemann, who played three games with the Blazers as a 15-year-old last season, did not appear to suffer much in the way of rookie jitters.
His confidence is pretty good, Zazula said of his D-partner. He has more confidence than I did when I was 16. He doesnt look out of place. Im happy for him. Hes just like me. He likes to get in the play, but hes good at D, as well.
Lajoie seemed miffed with penalties taken by players who were retaliating or sticking up for teammates who could have done without the help.
He referenced a penalty taken by Zary, who stands six feet tall and weighs 175 pounds. Zary, who turns 17 on Tuesday, became involved in a scrum while backing up teammate Jermaine Loewen, a 20-year-old forward who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 227 pounds.
Cant live with those penalties, Lajoie said of Zarys third-period roughing minor. Thats part of the maturity were going to have to demonstrate here moving forward. You talk about toughness. Mental toughness is being able to turn the other cheek.
I think he [Jermaine] can handle himself. Dont put yourself in a position where you can even give the ref an opportunity to make a call. He wanted to even up the game a little bit. We gave him every opportunity. We have to be better than that.
The Blazers, who sold out only one game last season, filled the barn on opening night and fans witnessed an improved on-ice product. That bodes well for future gates.
They also saw something that did not happen last season — a victory over Kelowna. The Rockets were 8-0 against the Blazers in 2017-2018.