Sunday, April 9, 2017

Rockets in drivers seat

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  • 97. That is the number of shots the Kelowna Rockets have fired at the Portland Winterhawks net in the first two games of their Western Conference semi final series. The scary thing is that total could be well over 100 if the Rockets hadn't passed up glorious shooting opportunities in a 5-2 win Saturday night at Prospera Place. Nick Merkley, the best skater on the ice, scored back-to-back empty net goals late in the game to go alongside his one assist for first star honours after a three point night. But even if you throw the goals aside, the 19 year-old dominated the play and was tenacious with the puck and determined in an effort to get it back. It may have been his best game of the post season, but in saying that, the Arizona Coyotes first rounder hasn't exactly had too many invisible games in this playoff run. Reid Gardiner and Dillon Dube each had two assists as the Rockets took a 2-0 lead in this series, with games three and four in Portland Tuesday and Wednesday night.
  • You knew the Winterhawks would make tactical changes in game two. They had too after being thoroughly outplayed for the majority of game one. The positives for the visitors were: 1) Fewer odd man rushes surrendered. 2) A slight reduction in the number of blatant turnovers in their own zone. While the Rockets played fewer minutes in Portland's end than they did in game one, I thought the quality of chances were still there. The Rockets were their own worst enemy in Saturday's rematch by passing up shooting chances. Kole Lind had a tremendous chance but passed, Nick Merkley thinking pass 99% of the time and even trigger happy Calvin Thurkauf, on a two on one with Merkley in the third period, passed the puck with no shot taken. Until the Rockets show a propensity to shoot on a two-on-one, I'm playing pass the entire way. The only player to consistently shoot the puck on a two-on-one is Reid Gardiner. God bless him! 
  • Kole Lind has outplayed Cody Glass in the battle of the top two forwards in this series eligible for June's NHL draft. Lind had another goal, a wicked wrist shot that beat Winterhawks goaltender Cole Kehler blocker side. Lind's goal opened the scoring. Glass had no less than two great looks but missed the net on both occasions. At the end of the night, Glass is a -3 in the game, but remember, two of those were empty net goals from Nick Merkley. 
  • I thought Lucas Johansen, again, had a solid game. What I liked about Johansen on this night was his propensity to shoot the puck. The 19 year-old must have had a season high number of shot attempts. The Washington Capitals first rounder was rewarded with a blast from the blue-line in the second period, when his shot was tipped home by teammate Tomas Soustal. I am crediting Johansen's father, Randall, for saying something to his son  before the game. The message was, 'shoot that thing'.     
  • Speaking of shooting, while several forwards were reluctant, the d-men were the exact opposite. James Hilsendager's game winning goal came off a seeing eye wrister from the blue-line that found it's way past Kehler thanks to a tremendous screen from captain Rodney Southam. It was Hilsendager's first career playoff goal and first career playoff game winner.  
  • Let's tip the cap to Rockets defenceman Devante Stephans. After dangerously going into the corner boards in game one after a hit from Winterhawks forward Brad Ginnell, the 19 year-old was surprisingly back in the line up for game two and didn't miss a beat. I thought 'Devo' was terrific. The Buffalo Sabres draft pick was shooting the puck without hesitation and showed no signs of favouring an injury.  
  • I liked the fact that the Winterhawks took two trips to the penalty box for 'interference on the goaltender.' I thought they got away with it in game one, but referee's Mike Campbell and Mark Pearce were much better at recognizing it and calling it.  
  • I thought Cole Kehler was again fine in the Winterhawks net. The dude deserved a star in game one more than he did in game two and is not the reason why the visitors dropped back-to-back games at Prospera Place. I thought Skyler MacKenzie stood out and had good jump in his step and I again liked Colton Veloso. Veloso's assist on Joachim Blichfeld's goal was all about determination with the puck and beating a solid defenceman in Cal Foote to the outside. Caleb Jones tried to make things happen, but I thought he was more effective in game one. Jones led all skaters with just over 30 minutes of ice time, three minutes more than the Rockets ice time leader - Lucas Johansen. 
  • The Rockets have opened the scoring in both games, have had the lead after 40 minutes and have out-shot the Winterhawks in both games. 
  • See you in Portland Tuesday night. I always look forward to my visits there and calling games at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. I honestly enjoy the Moda more, but the classic arena has old school charm that today's new arena's simple can not match.

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