KENNEWICK Johnny Lazo did not want to get back on the bus for a return trip to Kelowna, British Columbia, and he let his teammates know that.
Lazo backed up his between-periods comment in the dressing room by scoring the game-tying goal, and Kruise Reddick scored the game-winner at 5:37 of overtime to lift the Tri-City Americans to a 4-3 victory Friday over the Kelowna Rockets and a trip to the Western Conference finals before a frenzied crowd of 4,334 at Toyota Center.
"It feels good to leave them behind," said Lazo of the Rockets, who eliminated the Americans from the playoffs last year. "This is amazing. I want to stay here as long as I can. If we can make it to the Memorial Cup in Brandon, that's two hours from home."
The Americans won the best-of-7 series 4-1 and await the winner of the Vancouver-Portland series, which the Giants lead 3-1. Game 5 of that series is tonight in Vancouver.
"No question, it was a special night," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. "It's nice to close out a series no matter where you are, and in dramatic fashion. We're glad we got to share it with our fans. Give Kelowna credit, they made us look average the first two periods. When we had our backs to the wall, that's when we played our best."
Kelowna, which finished second at the Memorial Cup last year, tied the series at 1 but lost the next three games.
"They are a good hockey team," said Rockets coach Ryan Huska of the Americans. "We had our chances and we had a chance to increase our lead (in the third) with the power play, but that didn't happen."
Kelowna led 3-1 with eight minutes left in regulation after Lucas Bloodoff reached out with his stick as he went to the ice, poking the puck into the net.
Sergei Drozd, who scored the Americans' first goal five minutes into the third, scored his second of the game at 13:44 to pull Tri-City within 3-2, redirecting a shot by Brett Plouffe from the left point.
"He might not be able to tell you, but he's feeling great," Reddick said of Drozd, who still has trouble speaking English.
With time running out, the Americans called their lone timeout with 1:58 to play and pulled goalie Drew Owsley for an extra attacker.
Tri-City returned to the ice with its four top forwards and defensemen Plouffe and Tyler Schmidt.
Brendan Shinnimin sent the puck to the net from the left point and Lazo tried to chop it in at the right post. The puck went out into the slot, where Justin Feser sent it back to Lazo, who found a sliver of daylight between Kelowna goalie Mark Guggenberger and the right post at 18:36.
"I was just banging away," Lazo said. "Luckily, it found its way into the net. This place was amazing. The fans erupted after I scored and after Reddick's goal. Our fans are awesome."
In overtime, the Americans denied the Rockets a shot on goal, while Reddick's blast from the high slot found its way into the net.
"(Jarrett) Toll did a great job along the wall," Reddick said. "He made a between-the-legs pass, and it was luck that it went in."
The Rockets scored first for just the second time in the series as Brandon McMillan scored short-handed at 8:55 of the opening period.
McMillan won a faceoff with Drozd to the left of Owsley and the puck was sent out to Collin Bowman at the left point. Bowman's shot ricocheted off Jordan Messier's skate, and McMillan picked up the loose puck and put it in at the right post.
The Americans had nine shots on goal, including a short-handed breakaway by Lazo with 18 seconds to play in the first, but Guggenberger flopped down on the puck in the crease.
McMillan gave the Rockets a 2-0 lead at 8:13 of the second.
Geordie Wudrick, just out of the penalty box, sent the puck up ice to McMillan, who got behind the defense and went in alone on Owsley. The Americans goaltender went down for a block, but McMillan instead lifted the puck and put it in the upper left corner of the goal.
"All of our older guys I thought were good," Huska said. "We have to make sure we get some of our younger players to that level for future years."
The Rockets outshot the Americans 22-11 in the period, and Tri-City had quality chances, just a bit off the mark.
Defenseman Brock Sutherland rang the puck off the left post just three minutes into the second, while Plouffe did the same exact thing at 15:40.
"It was a tough series," Hiller said. "Low scoring, good hockey and well played."