The shots were there. The chances were there. The only thing that wasn’t there for the Kelowna Rockets was the winning goal.
That decisive tally came off the stick of Anthony Cirelli — his second goal of the game just 1:28 into overtime — as the Oshawa Generals prevailed 2-1 over the Rockets to capture the Memorial Cup in Quebec City on Sunday evening. Cirelli shoveled in a rebound of a point shot from the side of the crease to send the OHL champions into jubilation, while the WHL champion Rockets went home with heartbreak after falling in front of 10,391 fans in the final hockey game ever played at le Colisée Pepsi.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 1, 2015
The Generals were deserving champions, finishing unbeaten in four games at this national championship tournament, including another 2-1 triumph over the Rockets in round-robin play.
The score may have been the same, but the title game was tilted in Kelowna’s favour aside from the outcome. The Rockets outshot the Generals 38-26 in the rematch and held a 15-4 advantage partway through the second period before a couple of penalties took away their momentum. That was in sharp contrast to the first time these teams faced off, when the Generals outshot the Rockets 29-21 and had limited them to six shots at the game’s midpoint and about a dozen scoring chances overall.
The Rockets doubled the latter total and pushed the pace for most of Sunday’s championship game despite Oshawa coach D.J. Smith getting his preferred matchups with last change as the top seed. Kelowna’s Dan Lambert had that luxury in their round-robin encounter, but the Rockets struggled to gain any traction in the first half of that contest and had to regroup for Friday’s semifinal. Kelowna bounced back with a dominant 9-3 victory over the host Quebec Remparts to avenge another defeat, 4-3 in the tournament opener back on May 22.
For the Cup
Nobody expected a run-and-gun championship game, not with the Generals sticking to a suffocating style that proved effective if not pretty. Oshawa had already shut down Connor McDavid in the OHL championship series, holding the projected first overall pick in next month’s NHL draft to one assist in three road games. Against Kelowna, the Generals kept tournament MVP Leon Draisaitl off the score sheet — not once, but twice. That was quite the feat, though Draisaitl did generate a handful of opportunities for his line mates on Sunday, but Kelowna couldn’t buy a goal after Tomas Soustal opened the scoring late in the first period.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 31, 2015
Goaltender the difference
Ken Appleby shut the door the rest of the way, making several point-blank saves to earn top goaltender honours for the tournament. Thought to be a product of the team in front of him and that stingy defensive structure, Appleby was solid throughout and sensational to start the second period when Kelowna was swarming the offensive zone. The Rockets attacked in waves and peppered Appleby with pucks, but he held the fort long enough for the Generals to mount a push-back.
For those who weren’t watching the Memorial Cup or following the OHL this season, Appleby isn’t a household name. He’s undrafted, having turned 20 in April, but he stole the show on Sunday and nobody can take that away from him even if he doesn’t go on to NHL stardom.
Cirelli stepped up
It remains to be seen what the future holds for Cirelli — ranked 67th among North American skaters by Central Scouting — but he certainly raised his draft stock with a standout performance in the biggest game of the year. He was in the right place at the right time on the winner, but his equalizer was a top-corner snipe off the rush. Impressive, especially for a skinny 17-year-old who was playing midget hockey last season after getting passed over in the OHL draft.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 1, 2015
That’s a wrap
With that comes the end of the junior season, and a campaign that the Rockets will reflect on with fond memories once the sting wears off. Kelowna made its fifth Memorial Cup appearance in the last 12 years — the most of any CHL team since 2000 — and came within a bounce here or there of being crowned again, having previously won as tournament host in 2004. When a team comes so close to accomplishing its ultimate goal, it takes time to sink in, but the Rockets can hold their heads high as a collective group.
— Colin Basran (@Basran) June 1, 2015
Kelowna will lose Draisaitl and top-flight defencemen Josh Morrissey and Madison Bowey to the pro ranks while also graduating the over-age trio of Tyrell Goulbourne, Cole Martin and Chance Braid. But the Rockets will return a strong core with championship experience — including leading scorer and likely first-rounder Nick Merkley — so Kelowna should continue as a perennial contender in the WHL next season. As gloomy as today might seem, the future remains bright.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.