The Kelowna Rockets have cleared about every hurdle this Western Hockey League season, but one important obstruction remained.
Cole Linaker took care of that Wednesday night by scoring with 27 seconds left to give the Rockets a 2-1 win over the Spokane Chiefs at the Arena.
Spokane had been 2-0 this season against the Rockets (45-8-0-4, 94 points), who have been ranked No. 1 for seven consecutive weeks in the Canadian Hockey League’s Top 10 poll.
“We came in knowing we’ve struggled with these guys in the past, and we just wanted to stick to the game plan and play hard for 60 minutes,” Linaker said.
On the winning play, the Rockets took advantage of a Chiefs turnover and beat Spokane’s defense to the other end. Damon Severson put a nifty pass on net, and the puck went off Linaker’s skate into the net. Officials reviewed the play and determined that Linaker did not kick the puck.
“It’s always a little tense … but like I said, it wasn’t in any way a kick in motion, so we were confident that it would be a goal,” Linaker said.
“We turned the puck over in their end and they came out on a rush and we didn’t get back to our net nearly quick enough to get us into overtime,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “There are some guys who are going to have a tough time sleeping tonight going over that one play.”
A Kelowna goal with 2:07 left was disallowed because of a high stick call. Spokane (32-20-3-2, 69 points) nearly scored with 1:18 left when Mitch Holmberg made a perfect pass to Adam Helewka, but Jordon Cooke thwarted the attempt.
Cooke stopped 29 shots and his Chiefs counterpart, Eric Williams, made 32 saves.
Mike Aviani’s 4-minute high sticking penalty midway through the first period set up the Rockets’ first score. Myles Bell’s power-play goal at 14:47 from near the blue line was his 38th of the season, which ranks third in the league.
The Chiefs tied the score early in the third period, 17 seconds after their second power-play opportunity ended. Aviani and Jason Fram assisted on Reid Gow’s fifth goal of the season.
“We had a 1-1 game going and we let it slip away with 27 seconds left, but we could have had different luck, too,” Nachbaur said … “You can’t (make mistakes) against a desperate team and a good team like Kelowna, and they made us pay the price.”
The Rockets had been on a rare downturn, having lost four of eight (two in shootouts). Spokane has dropped six of seven games since defeating the Rockets in a shootout on Jan. 29.
Holmberg, the league leader in goals and points all season, gave up his points lead to Portland’s Nicolas Petan, who had three points Wednesday to give him 95. Holmberg, limited to five goals and four assists in his last 15 games, has 93 points.