Sunday, January 8, 2017

Gardiner's debut doesn't disappoint

Reid Gardiner celebrates - Shoot the Breeze Photography
  • Could you have written a better script for Reid Gardiner's debut Saturday with the Kelowna Rockets? Perhaps had he scored the game winner in the shootout, but heck, that was a pretty sweet effort in his first game back in the WHL after starting the season in the American Hockey League. Gardiner, acquired Friday from the Prince Albert Raiders, scored the tying goal while shorthanded as his new team snap a four game losing streak. Gardner's performance in a 3-2 shootout win over the Kamloops Blazers could have been more spectacular had Calvin Thurkauf scored on a third period breakaway. Gardiner delivered a perfect backhand pass to a streaking Thurkauf in the high slot but Blazers netminder Dylan Ferguson made the stop. In the end, Gardiner did not disappoint and was named the first star and showed excellent chemistry with linemates Nick Merkley and Calvin Thurkauf.  
  • Reid Gardiner isn't going to parachute down and cure all the offensive woes facing the Kelowna Rockets. That said, the 20 year-old will clearly make an impact in an effort to catch the Prince George Cougars for first place in the BC Division. The ultimate goal for the Rockets is to get their house in order in an effort to play at the ultimate level when the playoff start in late March. But...but...let's enjoy the remaining 30 games left in the regular season and what the 20 year-old sharp shooter can bring to the table and how he energizes and ultimately makes every teammate around him better. 
  • You could see it in warm-up that Gardiner was jacked up to play. His skating pace was quick, the puck came off his stick with velocity and he was ready and willing to be an active participant. I can't see how that can't rub off on his teammates. If Gardiner can be a quiet leader and play with purpose, whether it be a goal or even the ability to make body contact to win a board battle for a loose puck, others will follow his lead. Did Gardiner not have an immediate impact of Nick Merkley? It looked more and more like the 'old Nick Merkley' Saturday night, which included unloading a hard hit on Blazers d-man Luke Zazula in the third period. When Merkey is at his best, he is tenacious in hunting down pucks. He has no quit in his game. If he can get back to that one mainstay in his game that made him so effective as a 16 and 17 year-old, the Arizona Coyotes first rounder is going to make a major impact on the score-sheet.
  • The Rockets played with emotion in last night's game, but it was calculated emotion. Captain Rodney Southam got into Blazers forward Jermaine Loewen's grill on the opening face-off and several teammates attempted to initiate body contact on the well built Loewen. I thought James Hilsendager set the tone in the first period by aggressively running into Loewen at the blue line. In Friday's 3-1 Blazers win, did any Rockets player lay even a hand on Loewen? My guess is no.
  • Devante Stephens may be the goat on the Blazers first goal, but didn't he play an excellent game? I thought 'Devo' was terrific in his battle level along the boards and his skating stride gets him out of trouble. Stephens rarely hesitates in shooting the puck and makes great decisions when to pinch and when to sit back. The Buffalo Sabres need to sign this guy. A late bloomer who is rough around the edges, the 19 year-old is really making an impact on a blueline that is still without hard nosed Gordie Ballhorn. 
  • Cal Foote makes so many small plays that make a major impact on the game. Foote has the ability to get his stick on pucks destined to hit the Rockets net and his ability to cover up for a teammates miscue is uncanny. The best example was in the third period when Blazers Captain Collin Shirley had what appeared to be a grade 'A' scoring chance on goaltender Brodan Salmond in the slot. Foote came from nowhere to poke the puck away to the corner as Shirley was ready to unload the puck. It was a play that likely wasn't noticed by many, but it is the small details in Foote's game that makes one marvel at how terrific of defender he is. 
  • A shout-out to Brodan Salmond. I thought he was solid and appeared to get better with the game on the line. The 18 year-old made several solid stops and snuffed out 5 of 6 shooters in the shootout. Of the two goals he surrendered in regulation time, both were breakaways including Blazers forward Nick Chyzowski, who was awarded a second period penalty shot. 
  • For my money, the Rockets are still passing up way too many shooting opportunities. Dumb down the game. Shoot from everywhere and crash the net. The team is still attempting to make highlight reel passing plays and it isn't necessary. One shift stood out for me in the third period where a shot came from a Rockets d-man and all three forwards skated towards the net in an effort to chase down a rebound. It was picture perfect. While a rebound was not gobbled up and the Blazers cleared the zone, that needs to be constant.    
  • Funniest part of the game came in the shootout when Tomas Soustal scored. Teammate Nick Merkley, thinking the game was over and the Rockets had won, quickly jumped on the ice and skated towards Soustal and gave him a hug. Merkley then realized, that outside of Soustal, he was the only one on the ice, and with a sheepish grin on his face, skated back to the bench realizing the game wasn't over.
  • The Blazers have a gem in defenceman Luke Zazula. I thought he was terrific. The 16 year-old rookie is excellent with the puck and is a tremendous skater. That is a heck of a 4th round pick.
  • Lane Bauer made his debut with the Blazers this weekend and didn't register a point in either of the two games. But don't be fooled with the lack of production. I thought Bauer was noticeable in both games and his 25 goals this season are no fluke. Bauer is dangerous with the puck and makes the Blazers even that much more dynamic in the offensive zone.
  • You can't tell me the Kamloops Blazers are not one of the best teams in the Western Hockey League. Owning the 7th best record in the WHL, the Blazers are no easy out and are a handful for the evenly matched Rockets. Face it, and I'm biased, but the BC Division is the jewel of the WHL this season. Just ask an Eastern Conference opponent. The reason why BC Division teams don't have eye pooping records is because they are eating one another. The head-to-head games against one another is where the majority of the losses are coming from. Of the Rockets 15 losses this season, 8 have come courtesy of a BC Division opponent. I am not complaining. The BC Division hasn't been this heavy loaded....possibly ever...and the inter-division games are going to be much watch hockey. Saturday night's game between the Rockets and Blazers was another good example.

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