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Late goal gives Rockets win over Royals

The Victoria Royals’ winless streak spiraled to nine Western Hockey League games following a 4-3 loss to the Kelowna Rockets on Wednesday.
Royals forward Marcus Almquist and Rockets defenceman Elias Carmichael battle for the puck at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre on Wednesday. (DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST)

The Victoria Royals have yet to see victory in 2022 as their winless streak spiraled to nine Western Hockey League games following a 4-3 loss to the Kelowna Rockets before a sparse crowd Wednesday night at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

Five of those nine games have come against the Rockets, who have simply leaned on the much smaller Royals. Victoria (12-21-5) is 1-5-3 against Kelowna. From the Rockets’ perspective, the season series stands at 8-1.

Jake Lee won it Wednesday with a goal in the final two minutes of regulation time. It was dispiriting for the home side not to get at least a point out of the affair. But to be fair to the victors, the winning goal came after unrelenting Kelowna pressure as the Rockets outshot Victoria 49-24.

The Royals claimed the Rockets’ entry into the Victoria zone before Lee’s winner came on a high stick.

“That’s our respectful opinion,” said Royals coach Dan Price.

The Royals were looking for an early touch on 17-year-old rookie Kelowna goaltender Jari Kykkanen, a six-foot-three native of Alberta making his first career WHL start, but could muster only three shots on goal in the first period. The shot clock read 23-8 midway through the second period. That’s not exactly taking advantage of that situation. The Royals, however, cranked it up a notch in the last half of the game and almost pulled out at least a point.

But too many times this season the Royals have relied on the goaltending of Tyler Palmer or Campbell Arnold to bail them out. It was Palmer’s turn to shine with a 45-save crease master class.

“Tyler was outstanding. I feel sorry for him. He deserved a better fate,” said Price.

The Rockets (20-10-4) won for the fourth consecutive game and are 9-2-1 in their last 12 contests.

The Royals remained one point ahead of Tri-City in the race for the eighth and final playoff slot in the Western Conference but the Americans hold three games in hand.

Giving up the first goal, a recurring theme during the Royals slide, happened again when Andrew Cristall opened scoring in the second period followed by a Mark Liwiski goal that made it 2-0. Anthony Wilson pulled Victoria to within one before 16-year-old rookie defenceman John Babcock scored his first career WHL goal in the strangest of fashions to make it 3-1 late in the second period. Babcock caromed the puck around the Memorial Centre’s end glass in the Victoria zone, which capriciously spit it out off Palmer’s leg and into the net to the surprise of everybody in the building, including Babcock. The eccentric bounce would loom large. Twenty-year-old Bailey Peach brought Victoria back to within one at 2:20 of the third period with his team-leading 24th goal of the season. Matthew Hodson, with a searing wrister, tied it 3-3 at 5:29.

“I’m proud of the guys,” said Price.

“It was our sixth game in nine nights. To show that urgency to the net, and come back from two goals down and to find that extra gear in the third period, showed our character.”

The Royals were missing two of their three 20-year-olds with captain Tarun Fizer and Evan Patrician both out of the lineup.

Victoria hits the road to meet the Blazers on Friday and ­Saturday in Kamloops.