by Jon Keen

The season always abruptly comes to an end. You can't really prepare for it, or want to think about it. Then, like that... it's over.

Last night's 3rd period comeback wasn't enough as the Rockets stormed right back after rookie Brodi Stuart tied the game with 2:14 to play. The game, and the series ended 4-2 in favour of the Kelowna Rockets sending the Blazers into "next year" territory.

It will be a disappointing ending to a season that had plenty of promise backstopped by the best goalie in junior hockey. Even Ingram's off the charts numbers in the six-game set weren't enough. A .948 save percentage is usually more than capable of winning a series. Not in this case.

Truth is, the Blazers competed in the best division in the CHL this season and ran head on to the hottest team in the WHL since February 1st in the Kelowna Rockets. Bad luck maybe, but home ice advantage in the 1st round was up for grabs. Failing to secure that no doubt hurt the Blazers chances when you consider the team's 26-9-1 record at the Sandman Centre during the regular season.

Kelowna outplayed the Blazers for most of the action except for a few periods throughout the 18 in the series. I wouldn't be surprised to see Kelowna back at the Memorial Cup this year if they stay healthy and continue to get strong goaltending.

But back to the Blazers... a team that had a lot of things going for them. One thing that hurt them in the end, was something that was a concern all season long - the powerplay, or lack thereof. It struggled in the regular season... in fact the top unit went a month without scoring a goal between Feb and March. The man advantage closed the year at 17.4% (18th out of 22 teams).

They would have killed for that much efficiency in the playoffs. I don't need to break down the math, 1/32 says enough. As Don Hay said..."the powerplay got outworked." It was hesitant, nervous, out of sync... a lot of words or phrases very unflattering.

Another undoing was the inconsistency of work ethic and determination. The coaching staff never really got a handle on a game-to-game effort. As Hay said after a game three win..."it's kind of like a box of reach in and really just don't know what you'll be getting." It was a sore spot to say the least. Many nights the effort could be covered up with a strong goaltending performance. You just can't rely on that game in and game out.

The forwards were really a good group... a mix of skill and grit. A solid top six complimented by a grinding third line and a youthful 4th line. In a perfect world, the Blazers would have gotten more out of a 4th line this season. There was definitely some growing pains for the young forwards on the team. In the end, the young players don't win or lose games for you, that burden falls on the veterans.

The forwards had their nights, but there was off nights as well, forcing coach Hay to get out the line blender and find the right mix. 20 year olds Collin Shirley and Lane Bauer were hot and cold together.

For me the shining light was the Sideroff/Pilon/Balcers trio. Three guys with speed to burn that lit it up instantly. Sideroff had a break out season leading the team in points with 78. Still, he left you wanting more with his world class speed and skill. Garrett Pilon lived up to expectations in his 2nd season. He lead the team in assists with 45 and brought it most nights. What can you say about import Rudolfs Balcers? He had a special season for a 19 year-old rookie leading all first year players in the Canadian Hockey League with 40 goals. It was clear to see at training camp the Blazers had struck gold in the CHL Import Draft...but 40 goals? What a great season. Let's hope San Jose signs him to an entry level deal so he can continue to showcase his skills in North America. If not, Balcers has a long career ahead of him overseas.

The blueline was in transition all season. The club started with 10 defenseman who could all play at this level. Their depth allowed them to move out two quality D in Dawson Davidson in the Luc Smith deal and Connor McDonald in the Lane Bauer trade. The moves added ice time for 16 year-old Luke Zazula and moved Nolan Kneen into a greater role.

Ondrej Vala, Joe Gatenby and 20yr old Dallas Valentine were workhorses. Many nights they were the unsung heroes for the hockey club. They logged a ton of ice, and for the most part were healthy all season. Valentine's early season elbow injury sidelined him for about eight weeks. He was a welcome addition upon his return.

Danny Gatenby, Ty Ludwar and Zazula all contributed and will be welcomed back next season to take the next step.

Goaltending? What more can you say. Both guys deserve accolades. Connor Ingram's new club record .927 save % and Dylan Ferguson filling in admirably during Ingram's World Junior stint was nothing short of remarkable. This is likely the last we've seen of Ingram barring a log-jam in the pro ranks in the Tampa Bay system. His three seasons were spectacular. What a rise for the Imperial, SK 'tender. I fully expect him to take his game to the AHL next season in Syracuse as he continues his journey.

Blazer fans, don't worry...we are in good hands. The very talented Dylan Ferguson has shown he can be an elite goaltender at the WHL level. My guess is he gets drafted this summer and comes back to camp feeling really good about his future with the Blazers. Ferguson's hands and feet are among the best in the WHL already. This will be a strength of the team next season.

The Blazers are set to graduate a ton of top players...20 year olds Collin Shirley, Lane Bauer and Dallas Valentine. Signed 19 year-old Deven Sideroff and pro hockey bound Rudolfs Balcers will also likely not be back. Goaltender Connor Ingram as mentioned is also likely moving on There will be a decision on the 20 year old front with 19 year-old returnees Joe Gatenby, Nick Chyzowski, and Nic Holowko, Are all three locks here next season? The league will be flooded with quality over-agers. The 1997 birth year is a strong one. Many teams will have an abundance of 20 year-old talent with the tough decision of keeping only three.

Next year will be a rebuilding process, but fortunately for the Blazers, several teams in the Western Conference will be in the same situation... Kelowna, Prince George, Seattle, and Tri-City all face significant player turnover.

The Blazers like the age group that will be the 17 year-olds next season (Zazula, Shepard, Stuart, Harrison, Appelt) who all saw action this year. All should be ready for a greater role next season. Brodi Stuart's stock has risen with his performance late in the season and playoffs.

The Blazers also like the crop of 16 year-olds coming in like Zary, Schmiemann, Sopytk, Darby,and Orchard. It's a good group of young talent that would become a great group with the signing of F Massimo Rizzo - perhaps the best 15 year-old prospect in Western Canada today. Mass continues to weigh his options and the Blazers remain patient.

The Blazers will get a better look at these players coming up in June with their prospects camp.

That's a wrap, I hope you all enjoyed the season and our coverage at Radio NL. Have a great summer.

Find me on twitter @JonKeenNLSports for the latest Blazer news and coverage.