WHL blog: Clutch scoring key for Rockets in final

Merkley's points-per-game average is down some from last season, but his team's performance has surprised. (Marissa Baecker/Getty)

So much for an epic clash between two great hockey teams.

The Kelowna Rockets are the WHL champions after sweeping away the Brandon Wheat Kings to win their fourth Ed Chynoweth Cup Tuesday night. The Rockets ousted Brandon with a 3-0 shutout in Game 4 on Wednesday at Prospera Place in Kelowna.

The matchup between the two best teams turned out to be less than advertised thanks largely to an outstanding effort by the Rockets. They proved that having more experience along with elite talent wins out over youth in the end.

Both teams came into the series loaded and evenly matched. The difference turned out to be Kelowna’s ability to score at key moments.

It started in Game 1 when Justin Kirkland and Chance Braid each scored in the first two minutes of the second period to break open a tie. That put the Wheat Kings on their heels and despite pulling the game even later, Leon Draisaitl delivered the back-breaker in the third.

In Game 2 it was Nick Merkley giving Kelowna a lead by scoring with three seconds left in the first period – a goal that again gave the Rockets a lead. Similarly to Game 1, Brandon would tie it up but Merkley offered more heartbreak with a third period short-handed goal.

In the third game the Wheat Kings fell behind early but scratched their way back to within a goal in the third period. That momentum was dashed when Rourke Chartier redirected a Merkley pass into the net to ice it for Kelowna. Finally, with their backs against the wall in Game 4, the Wheat Kings battled hard for 40 minutes before more heartache. Draisaitl and Chartier would score two short-handed goals in a span of 20 seconds in the third period to start the celebration. What could have been a game and series-saving power play for Brandon ended in disaster.

And how about Draisaitl? The Edmonton Oilers first-rounder turned out as advertised after the Rockets acquired him from the Prince Albert Raiders at the trade deadline. He had 28 points in 19 playoff games and was named playoffs MVP. The big German was the best player on the ice during the finals and Rockets coach Dan Lambert matched him on a line with Chartier and Merkley in Game 1. That lineup tweak ended up paying off in a big way as the three combined for 11 goals and 11 assists over the four-game series. Despite the talent on Brandon’s roster, it is tough to match that kind of production.

Defensively, led by Madison Bowey and Josh Morrissey, the Rockets were able to slow down Brandon’s high-powered offensive attack and never let them find their rhythm. In net, Jackson Whistle answered the questions about whether he was up for the task. He finished the sweep with a shutout and held the Wheat Kings below their average goals-per-game output.

The win has to be satisfying for Lambert, who after three years as an assistant in Kelowna gets the hardware in his first go-around. The last rookie head coach to win the WHL championship was Portland’s Travis Green, who stepped in for Mike Johnston to win it all in 2013. Lambert now has a chance to do what Green couldn’t – win the Memorial Cup. Not only that, but Lambert has a chance to win the Memorial Cup as a coach and as a player after winning with Swift Current in 1989.

While disappointing for the Wheat Kings this year, they are in great shape moving forward. Kelly McCrimmon’s squad is young, talented and will be a force again next year in the Eastern Conference. They had a tremendous year winning the Scotty Munro trophy as the league’s top regular season team, and while this loss surely stings, it can turn into a valuable learning experience.

They will lose the veteran leadership of Peter Quenneville and Eric Roy, who will be hard to replace. But they could potentially return a lineup just as good, if not better than this year’s squad. Tim McGauley should be back as an over-ager, looking to build on his 42-goal season. So should 30-goal scorer Jayce Hawryluk and rookie sensation Nolan Patrick. Reid Duke and John Quenneville should all return up front as well.

On the back end, they may lose Ivan Provorov to the NHL but top guys like Ryan Pilon, Macoy Erkamps, Kale Clague and Colton Waltz should all be back. Jordan Papirny came of age in net this season and his playoff performance showed that he is ready to backstop a championship run.

Watching the Rockets in the MasterCard Memorial Cup may hurt a bit for Brandon’s players and fans, but you can bet they’re looking to be there again next season.