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Rockets look to pressure Blazers’ stopper

Kamloops goalie Connor Ingram is one of the keys to the first round series against Kelowna
The Kelowna Rockets will try to unnerve Kamloops Blazers goalie Connor Ingram in the first-round playoff series between the teams. -Image credit: Marissa Baecker/Shoot The Breeze

For much of the 2016-17 Western Hockey League season, Connor Ingram had the Kelowna Rockets’ number.

With three wins and a scant three goals allowed in his first three starts against Kelowna, the Kamloops Blazers’ netminder looked next to unbeatable.

But in the final meeting between the clubs on Feb. 24 in Kamloops, the Rockets broke the dyke against Ingram, chasing the Blazers’ stopper with six goals on 26 shots, en route to a convincing 8-2 win.

After struggling to find an answer for Ingram early in the season, leading scorer Kole Lind said the Rockets’ last encounter with the Blazer goalie was a positive sign.

“He was (in our heads) a little bit, I think,” Lind said of Ingram’s early dominance of Kelowna.

“I think there was a little bit of doubt in our minds against him, but I think we finally figured him out, so it should be a fun series.

“We just gotta keep going at him,” added Lind, who led the Rockets with 87 points this season. “He’s going to make brilliant saves, we know that but I think we just gotta keep firing pucks, second and third chances, and battling for pucks in front will be a huge part of it.”

Ingram’s play will be centre stage as the Rockets battle the Blazers for the second straight year in the opening round of the WHL playoffs.

Game 1 goes Friday, 7:05 p.m., at Prospera Place.

The Rockets gave more than a few opposing goalies fits down the stretch, scoring 76 goals and closing out the season with 12 wins in 14 games.

Kelowna GM Bruce Hamilton said the club’s offense—which struggled at times earlier in the season—has awakened at the right time of the year. Now it’s a matter of maintaining that attack against Ingram and the Blazers.

“Getting pucks by (Ingram) is going to be one of the differences in the series,” said Hamilton. “We made some goalies look pretty good in this building this year early on, where we just didn’t finish. But it’s been a lot better the last part of the season.

“Now I think our team understands you gotta go to some areas where you’re going to get whacked and that’s just the way it is if you want to have success.”

Game 2 in the best-of-seven series goes Saturday, 7:05 p.m., at Prospera Place, with Games 3 and 4 in Kamloops next Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

Blazer faces ex-mates…

Defenceman Joe Gatenby will have a different perspective than a year ago when he was wearing Rockets’ colours for their first round series against the Blazers.

The 19-year-old from Kelowna was dealt to Kamloops by the Rockets in the off-season and has been one of the Blazers more dependable blueliners in 2016-17.

Gatenby is looking forward to the challenge of facing his former team but assures he won’t be feeling the least bit sentimental towards the Rockets once the puck drops.

“It’s exciting, it’s a great opportunity for our team and that’s all I really look at,” said Gatenby, who had seven goals in 38 points in 71 games this season. “Really now I’m just focused on the series, what we need to do.”

“I don’t get caught up too much in the storylines and the history. Once the game starts, that’s all I’m thinking about, trying to do what I can to help the Blazers win.”

As for what key factor will determine a winner in the series, Gatenby believes it will simply come down to the will to win.

“In the end, it’s two really good teams going head to head that want the same thing,” said Gatenby. “I think it’s just going to be who wants it more, that’s all it will really come down to.”