Hitmen pushed to the brink

SCOTT FISHER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

KELOWNA -- The Calgary Hitmen had the brooms out throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs.

But they'll be staring at the wrong end of the witch's ride tomorrow night.

Last night's 2-0 loss at Kelowna's jam-packed Prospera Place puts the Hitmen down 3-0 in the WHL Championship.

Hitmen bench boss Dave Lowry said he never envisioned seeing his top-ranked team on the verge of being swept.

"Going into the series, we knew we were facing a very good opponent," Lowry said after his team was outshot (24-21) for the first time in the post-season.

"Did I think, at any point, that we'd be down three-nothing? Absolutely not.

"We battled, but we haven't created enough. Are we shocked? No. Are we disappointed? Absolutely."

The play of Calgary's top offensive players has been the biggest disappointment.

Their top four scorers -- Brandon Kozun, Brett Sonne, Joel Broda and Kyle Bortis -- combined for 379 points during the regular season.

None of them have found the scoresheet a single time in this series.

Ryley Grantham's first-period goal stood up as the game winner last night, and Cody Almond scored into an empty net in the final seconds, as the Rockets pushed the Hitmen to the brink of elimination.

Kelowna starter Mark Guggenberger was the true star, turning aside 21 shots for his third shutout of the post-season. Game 4 goes tomorrow night in Kelowna (8 p.m., Shaw TV, Fan 960).

Martin Jones had a solid game between the pipes for the Hitmen, making 22 stops.

Sensing their season hung in the balance, the Hitmen played with desperation early in the third period.

But they simply had no answer for Guggenberger.

The Kelowna 'tender denied Kris Foucault on a deflection two minutes in and then turned aside Ian Schultz with a flashy right-pad save.

Sonne was staring at an open net with eight minutes left but couldn't find the puck in his skates.

And that pretty much summed up the Hitmen's entire series.

The only team to overcome a 3-0 series deficit in the WHL playoffs was the Spokane Chiefs, who came back to beat the Portland Winter Hawks in the opening round of the 1996 playoffs.

Hitmen co-captain Carson McMillan denied that Guggenberger is now in his teammates' heads.

"We're not getting the bounces," the overage forward said.

"We're getting guys in front of him, but the puck seems to be finding his pads.

"We just have to keep putting pucks on him."

Kozun, who had 108 points during the regular season, nearly notched his first point of the series midway through the first period, but Guggenberger kicked out the right pad to make a big save.

The Rockets seemed intent on chasing Hitmen defenceman Keith Seabrook around the ice for the opening 10 minutes.

Seabrook rocked world junior star Jamie Benn, the WHL playoffs scoring leader, twice in the first two games.

The Rockets sniper did not dress last night and Seabrook was booed loudly by the Prospera Place faithful every time the blueliner touched the puck.

Grantham sent the towel-waving crowd into a frenzy with 4:45 to play in the period when he grabbed a Mitchell Callahan rebound and slid it past Jones for a 1-0 lead.

The Rockets outshot the Hitmen 10-3 in the frame.

Neither team could find the back of the net in the middle stanza, which seemed to suit the Rockets just fine.

Content to keep the play to the outside and the pucks out of their slot, the Rockets limited the visitors to a handful of low-end chances.

When things did break down, Guggenberger was there again. Winger Joel Broda had a chance to crack the goose egg in the final minute of the period, but Guggenberger slid across and stopped the shot with his shoulder.


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