The Kelowna Rockets rolled into Kennewick at 5 a.m. Wednesday, driving through the night after their home game Tuesday night.
These days, it doesn’t matter where the Rockets lay their heads — they lead the WHL with 50 wins after Myles Bell scored the game winner in the shootout to beat the Tri-City Americans 4-3 before a Wednesday night crowd of 3,304 at Toyota Center.
“It’s really tough,” said Americans forward Parker Bowles, who had two assists. “We worked hard all game and we proved to ourselves we can beat them. We just have to keep working hard and taking positives out of the games and carrying them over.”
Tri-City (27-28-3-5, 62 points) has lost seven in a row, but the one point earned gave the Americans a two-point lead on Prince George for the eighth and final ticket to the playoffs for the Western Conference.
“We’ve gotten a point out of the last two games,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. “We are adding them to the cause.”
Kelowna (50-9-0-4, 104 points), the top-ranked team in the CHL, is the first team to 50 wins this season and has a seven-point lead over the Portland Winterhawks for the best record in the WHL.
“Fifty wins, we are real proud of our boys,” said Kelowna coach Ryan Huska. “It’s exciting to get that when everyone in your conference is a good team. Prince George is a good team and they are on the outside looking in.”
The Americans gave the Rockets all they could handle through regulation and overtime, but shootout has not been a strength for Tri-City this season.
Beau McCue, Bowles and Brian Williams all came up short in the shootout against Jackson Whistle.
“It’s pretty much luck,” Bowles said of the shootout. “A nice move, a nice shot, a good save. It’s a tough way to go. We are happy we got at least a point.”
Bell, Kelowna’s second shooter, was the only Rocket to find the net.
“Marek (Tvrdon) had the right idea, but (Eric) Comrie stopped him,” Huska said of his first shooter. “Ryan (Olsen) hit the crossbar. Myles missed his last couple (of shootout shots), but he changed things up and got his goal.”
The Rockets held a slim 2-1 lead after two periods, but saw that lead evaporate as McCue and Michal Plutnar scored goals in the first 3:35 of the third for a 3-2 lead.
Plutnar’s goal, which gave Tri-City the 3-2 lead, came when he picked up a loose puck to the right of the net and beat Whistle far side.
The Americans held the lead for 11 minutes before Tvrdon scored his second of the night, redirecting a shot from the point by Riley Stadel past Comrie to knot the score at 3.
With overtime solving nothing, the game went to the shootout.
“They always play hard here,” Huska said of the Americans. “I liked our game until the two mistakes in the third and they capitalized. We are at the time of the year where everyone is fighting for something. Everyone has an expectation that every game will be tough.”
The Americans had just 16 shots through two periods, but it was a tight game nonetheless.
Trailing 2-0 after the first periods, Tri-City held Kelowna scoreless on 16 shots in the second — including two Rocket power plays.
At the other end, the Americans pulled within 2-1 with a goal by Williams.
Williams started the play, sending the puck up ice to Lucas Nickles, who in turn gave Williams a drop pass just inside the Rockets’ zone. Williams wheeled around Kelowna defenseman Damon Severson and went to the net.
Williams’ first shot was denied, but the second found the net at 9:18. It was his 35th goal and 50th point of the season.
“That was a great drop pass by Nicks,” Hiller said. “That is probably the best goal of the year that wasn’t an individual effort.”
The Americans frustrated the Rockets the first 12 minutes of the game, holding Kelowna to four shots on goal and killing off the Rockets’ lone power player.
But once the media break ended, the Rockets went to work.
Tvrdon put the puck in the far top corner of the net at 12:35, and Myles Bell scored his 40th goal of the season short-handed at 15:50.