Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hard nosed hockey against familar playoff foe

Shoot the Breeze Photography
  • Playoffs in October? In major league baseball, yes. In the WHL, we are just getting started. That said, I have to admit Wednesday night's game at Prospera Place between the Kelowna Rockets and Victoria Royals had a playoff feel to it. Was it a carry over from last seasons epic seven game Western Conference semi final series? Maybe? All I know is these two teams played with emotion from the opening face-off and it remains abundantly clear that no love has been lost from a year ago. When the dust settled, the Rockets earned an impressive 6-4 win over their BC Division rivals courtesy of a four point night from Kole Lind (1+3=4) and two goals from the stick of Calvin Thurkauf and Rodney Southam. The win moved the Rockets back to the .500 mark with an overall record of 7-7-0-0. While that doesn't look overly impressive, the four game winning streak has the team trending in the right direction as they close out the month of October with back-to-back games this weekend in Portland.
  • This game was likely the most physical we've witnessed at Prospera Place this season. Rockets d-man Devante Stephens was nailed in the second period by Royals overager Carter Folk on an icing call. Stephens didn't miss a shift, but was blasted into the end board in what looked like a dangerous play. Do I fault Folk for the collision? Not really. I fault the linesman who was slow on the whistle. Clearly it was icing but the linesman wouldn't blow the play dead. What else is Folk supposed to do in that situation? You play until you hear the whistle. Fortunately, Stephens didn't miss a shift and no penalty was accessed on the play. While I will give Folk the benefit of the doubt on that hit, the WHL should keep a close eye on this player. He plays very close to the line and sometimes likes to dip his toe in the dirty side of the pool if you know what I mean.
  • A game with this type of intensity deserved a fight and it featured Riley Stadel dropping the gloves with Royals rookie Kaid Oliver. This tilt broke out after Oliver was accessed a minor penalty for kneeing Tomas Soustal. As soon as Oliver came out of the penalty box, he seemed to lock horns immediately with Stadel at the Rockets blue-line. To be honest, I am not a fan of a 20 year-old fighting a 16 year-old.  In fact, I strongly dislike it....unless...Oliver came at Stadel and was the aggressor. All I know is, I would not be impressed if Royals overager Ryan Gagnon elected to trade punches with, let's say, 16 year-old Nolan Foote. Bad example, considering Foote wasn't in the line-up, but you get the idea. In the WHL, it is an unwritten code that 20 year-old's shouldn't fight 16 year-old's. It still happens occasionally, but I wish it didn't happen at all.   
  • While this game had no lack of emotion, it also had a series of great goals. Calvin Thurkauf continues to deploy his great wrist shot and Rodney Southam deflecting home a shot from the blue-line, on the power play, were some of the bright spots. Eight players hit the score-sheet including Lucas Johansen and Jonathan Smart, who each had a pair of assists in the victory.
  • The Rockets look like a totally different team than a few weeks ago. The passing is better, the calmness in their game and overall execution has taken a huge step forward. The power play struck for three goals for heaven sake! Again, the team was getting into shooting lanes and blocking shots and allowed the Royals to play all night on the perimeter if they wanted too...which they did. I don't know if it's a tendency, but the Royals frequently pass up shot opportunities by over passing. It happened numerous times as the visitors attempted to score the highlite reel goal. The skill is there for the Royals, but sometimes dumbing it down is not a bad option. 
  • Are the Royals not the best 'stretch pass' team in the Western Conference? The d-man is always looking for an awaiting forward at the opposition blue-line. Most times, it works.
  • Nick Merkley chipped in with an assist on Tomas Soustal's second period goal and collected his 200th career point in the process.
  • Rookie Connor Bruggen-Cate earned an assist for his first career WHL point on Rodney Southam's second period goal.
  • For my money, Devante Stephens has really ramped up his game. The 19 year-old, who had a down year in 2015-2016, is really looking good back on the blue line. Still making the odd passing error in his own zone, 'Devo' is joining the attack, finding good shooting areas and his tremendous speed is on display for all to see. Would I love to see Stephens race Royals overager forward Jack Walker. My money would be on Stephens if it was a race from goal line to centre ice. My money would be on Walker if both skaters had to carry a puck on their stick. Both have blinding speed. 
  • The Rockets now prepare for two games in Portland this weekend. The team heads down Friday with games Saturday (7 pm) and Sunday (5 pm). 

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