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- The Seattle Thunderbirds have ended the Kelowna Rockets season for a second consecutive year. A three goal second period led the T-Birds to their second consecutive Western Conference championship and another birth in the WHL finals. It is safe to say it was the Rockets worst effort of the playoffs Sunday night. Manufacturing scoring chances has been a hallmark of the team all season long and the 2017 playoffs were no exception - up until game six that is. While opening the scoring, the Rockets were only able to generate 4 shots on net in the opening period and stumbled mightily when T-Birds forward Keegan Kolesar was accessed a five minute major penalty for checking from behind on Devante Stephens. With the 19 year-old ejected from the game (the T-Birds leading playoff scorer), the Rockets were unable to set up in the offensive zone and wasted away a segment of the game that could have ultimately propelled them to victory. In my opinion, that five minute power play and lack of execution was the starting point of one of the roughest outings we've witnessed at Prospera Place this season. Unfortunately, it came at the most crucial time of the year. The T-Birds win the game 3-1 and advance to the WHL final against Regina with a 6 game series win.
- Hats off to the Seattle Thunderbirds. Losing their top defenceman, Ethan Bear, to injury in game three and hardly missing a beat is impressive. Racking up a 12 and 2 record in the 2017 playoffs with rookie goaltender Carl Stankowski is eye popping. At the end of the day, Stankowski out-dueled Michael Herringer plain and simple. The 17 year-old had to make bigger saves and was one of the reasons why the T-Birds had a fighting chance against a Rockets team, that I believe, had more depth when you compare the two team's on paper. But as we know, depth on paper does little. Playing the games with determination, no matter what the circumstances, is the true sign of a champion. Don't count the T-Birds out no matter what cards they are dealt. They are more resilient than many people believe, including me. I'm now a believer. It is no fluke where they are today.
- If you can lose your top goaltender before the playoffs even start and play in the first round without Mathew Barzal and still advance, that indeed is something special. If you can sweep a second round series against the US Division regular season champions with a rookie goalie, hats off to you. If you can lose your best defenceman for three games in the third round and still knock off an elite team like the Rockets, is that not the mark of a champion?
- The WHL careers of Rodney Southam, Michael Herringer and Reid Gardiner came to an abrupt end Sunday night. I was glad that all three could receive a sendoff in front of the home fans. I also felt good for both Southam and Herringer that they had the experience of winning a WHL championship in 2015. Sadly, Reid Gardiner, who had not played past the opening round, failed to reach his goal. My hope is he did enough in these playoffs (A franchise record 15 goals) to earn a pro contract.
- Michael Herringer's time with the Kelowna Rockets was interesting to say the least. Filled with ups and downs, what type of situation would the team have been in had they not plucked him off waivers in September of 2015? He saved the day in the run towards the 2015 WHL championship by bailing out the team in series clinching games against Tri City, Seattle before coming into game 6 against Portland in the Western Conference championship to backstop the Rockets when starter Jackson Whistle was pulled after surrendering three goals. Herringer moves on following graduation, which creates a massive hole at that position. Is backup Brodan Salmond ready to take the reins as the full time starter? That answer will become clearer in four short months.
- The Rockets will lose, with my best guess, 7 players from this years roster. Reid Gardiner, Rodney Southam and Michael Herringer are gone to graduation. Calvin Thurkauf, Nick Merkley, Lucas Johansen and Devante Stephens are all signed players by the respective NHL teams that drafted them. If I were a betting man, of those signed players, Stephens may be the only one sent back to the WHL as a 20 year-old. Heck, T-Birds sharp shooter Ryan Gropp is a 20 year-old and was sent back as a second round pick of the New York Rangers. It does happen.
- The Rockets will have to fill three overage spots next season with essentially four players in the mix. Do you bring back Tomas Soustal to fill one of those spots? Soustal would also take one of your European spots, so it will be interesting to see what they do with that skilled, yet somewhat inconsistent player. Carsen Twarynski, acquired from Calgary at the trade deadline, could also fill an overage spot if he is not signed by the Philadelphia Flyers by June 1st. Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager are the other 20's on the roster that also need to be considered. Hilsendager may be the most valuable of the bunch. The former Regina Pat was missed when he was hurt in game four and couldn't play in either game five or six. Hilsendager brings the most physicality on the blue line. Lots of interesting decisions to make.
- What type of team will the Rockets ice next season? I'm optimistic considering others also lose top end players. Look for Cal Foote and Kole Lind to be first round NHL picks this summer. Both of those players, the Rockets top defenceman this season and leading scorer, return in 2017-2018. How good is Nolan Foote going to be? The sky is the limit for the 16 year-old forward. Dillon Dube returns to the team as a 19 year-old and will undoubtedly play for Canada again at the 2018 World Juniors. I think Kyle Topping is just scratches the surface on his potential. Leif Mattson is an intriguing player. First round bantam pick Kaeden Korczak will be a nice player to watch. The team will likely make two selections in the CHL Import draft and hopefully those two player make an offensive impact.
- At the end of the day, this was a great season. Picking up 45 wins in the toughest division in the WHL was impressive. Collecting 95 points, especially when the team was without so many players at the World Junior Hockey Champjonships was a delight to watch. That Christmas road trip where the team, despite being short staffed, surprised even me at how hard they played under rookie head coach Jason Smith. The overtime win against Regina, at home, was a fun game during a regular season which is often a grind. I really liked this group of players. All the guys were fun to be around.
- Think about this for a second. The Rockets have played in four consecutive Western Conference championships. In those four seasons, the team has played a total of 360 games (regular season/playoffs combined). Has any other WHL team over that four year span played more?
- I will miss Lucas Johansen. Why? He was such a great interview. His calm, pro demeanour in our conversations made it feel like I was talking to a pro. Johansen spoke the truth without throwing anyone under the bus. I really like his personality. Reid Gardiner was also well spoken. In every conversation I had with Reid, he too pro written all over him. The way he spoke, the way he acted around his teammates and the way he prepared, had me believing he was going to be a difference maker when he arrived on the scene in early January. The 21 year-old delivered and set a new playoff franchise record in the process.
- On this blog post, I want to thank Kent Simpson for his help on the radio broadcasts this season. Simpson knows the game, having played at a high level. He too wanted the team to win but wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade when a player made a mistake. 'Simmer' always brought a smile and a great attitude to the broadcast booth. I also want to thank Gord McGarva for filling in when Kent was away. McGarva was a rock star in game 6 specifically, when on short notice, he had to make some changes in his Sunday plans to be by my side to call the series clincher. McGarva's work on the post game show was exceptional, with great reaction from the three 20 year-old's at the conclusion of the game. I also want to thank you! Ya, you the reader of this blog and for those that listen over the winter to the radio broadcasts on AM 1150. I appreciate your ears at the other end of the radio.