Saturday, March 31, 2018

Upset in round one? Not even close.

Shoot the Breeze Photography
  • Did we witness an upset in the opening round when the Tri City Americans eliminated the Kelowna Rockets in four straight games? Hardly. If you were not paying attention, the Rockets were struggling mightily down the stretch. Despite a five game winning streak in their back pocket entering the post season, those wins came against inferior competition. Sorry playoff-less Kamloops and Prince George, but you both weren't very good. That said, the Rockets squeezed out wins against them down the stretch. It left me feeling uneasy. Conversely, the Americans were unhealthy all season long and were just getting their entire team back in the final few weeks of the season, They entered the playoffs with 6 wins in their final 7 games, all against US Division opponents. As one media observer pointed out, the Americans could have had 45+ wins had they played in the BC Division. The colleague even pointed out the Rockets wouldn't have enjoyed a 40+ win season had the roles been reversed. It is hard to argue considering the Rockets had just two wins south of the border all season along. Regardless, the Americans, with 38 wins this season, wasn't a true indication of exactly how good they indeed were. Only GM Bob Tory knew that his team was underachievers and envisioned how good they could be if healthy and how much better they would get if they acquired elite d-man Jake Bean from the Calgary Hitmen. You don't make that trade if you don't have a belief that indeed your team can play with the big boys in the WHL. Tory is no dummy. He isn't a dreamer. Tory knew what he had and wasn't scared to make it better when Bean was obtained when no one saw it coming.
  • So let's dispel the notation of this being an upset...because it was anything but. Did I think the Rockets would be swept? No, I did not. But I knew goaltending would play a significant factor in this series and it did. Patrick Dea stole the show in game one with a 39 save shutout performance and the 20 year-old needed to only be average after that point. And honestly, Dea was just ok the rest of the way. If I see a downfall of the Americans going forward, it is in that position. Rockets rookie James Porter Junior started all four games and struggled with consistency. While I thought he made some terrific saves in game four, it was the saves that he was unable to make that were costly. Case in point was Morgan Geekie's first goal of the game which came late in the second period when the dynamic forward was able to squeeze the puck past Porter to make it 2-1. Porter was in a great position and it looked like he had it, but it somehow found it's way through him. I didn't like Nolan Yaremko's third period goal either, where the puck was literally chipped over Porter during a mad scramble. Let's don't forget Porter's massive save on Yaremko in the first period when he was all alone in front of the net to keep the game 1-0, but it was those series of backbreaking goals when the line between winning and losing is so thin that made a significant difference.
  • A defender of goaltending in general on this blog, before we pile on Porter let's remember the Rockets organization was taking a significant risk by starting a rookie 17 year-old in the playoffs. It was unchartered territory for this team, who typically go with 19 or 20 year-old netminders at the most important time of the season. So, if you are going to roll the dice and not upgrade in that position, you live with the results. Seventeen year-old Carl Stankowski's hero like effort last season for the WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds was an anomaly. Going a long distance with a wet behind the ears goalie is not common place.
  • Morgan Geekie had Porter's number. With 9 goals in the series, it was clear that Porter had problems when Geekie had the puck on his stick. I've seen it happen early as last season to be exact. I remember every time Reid Gardiner had the puck on his stick, Portland Winterhawks netminder Cole Kehler just couldn't read where Gardiner was about to shoot it. It seemed Geekie had gotten into the head of Porter much like Gardiner owned Kehler a season ago in round two. Gardiner had 7 goals in that series against the Winterhawks if you want statistical evidence.   
  • While goaltending is pivotal at this time of the year, team defense is needed especially if that area of your game is in question. But lacking depth on the blue-line made it hard to defend. James Hilsendager was playing hurt, so it was up to Cal Foote, Gordie Ballhorn, Braydyn Chizen and Kaedan Korczak to carry the mail. Libor Zabransky saw spot duty, but it was tough sledding on the blue-line. The Rockets surrendered 24 goals in 4 playoff games. That is the most goals the team has given up in one playoff series - ever. The team lost 5-0, 9-7, 5-3 and 5-3. What you were asking the forwards to do was score more than 5 goals per game in order to win.
  • The Americans did two things significantly better than the Rockets. 1) They played a better team game. Routinely, the Americans would dump pucks into the zone from the blue-line and chase it. The Rockets, almost like it was evil if they did the same, wanted to skate the puck into the zone and make a move around a defenceman to create a scoring chance. More times than not, it failed. 2) The Americans were hungrier in front of the opposition net. How many times did they score from mad scrambles in front of Porter? They were always looking for secondary chances on goal. The Rockets, which was common place throughout the season, played more of a perimeter game and relied on goals from the face-off dots. While visually pretty to watch, jamming away at loose pucks in the skates of a defender or goalie was like the hair on my bald spot. Sporadic at best. The Americans d-men often feathered or saucered a puck towards the net, hoping it would be knocked down and a mad scramble would ensue.
  • When you look at really good teams, the fourth line typically makes some type of contribution. If they don't contribute, then at least they don't hurt you. The Americans were able to safely put those players on the ice with nothing adverse happening. It makes a big difference if that trust factor is there.
  • The Rockets elected to play Dillon Dube with Kole Lind and Carsen Twarynski in game four. And why not? With all offensive eggs in one basket, Dube had two goals and that line was often a handful. But as good as Dube and Lind were, it seemed like they were better separated than together. The two had some chemistry, but something was always missing there. The two often wanted to bring the puck into the zone themselves rather than using each other to make it easier.
  • The four playoff games consisted of 240 minutes of hockey. Of those 240 minutes, the Rockets carried the lead for just 26 minutes and 11 seconds. That lead was only enjoyed in game two. It was the dreaded 9-7 loss. In games one, three and four, the Rockets either trailed the game or had it tied, but never enjoyed the lead in three of the four games.
  • The Americans opened the scoring in three of the four games and carried the lead into the third period in three of the four.
  • The loss meant the conclusion of the playing careers for 20 year-old's Geordie Ballhorn, Carsen Twarynski and James Hilsendager. I will share more on those three players in a later posting. The team also looses its top four point producers from this season in Kole Lind, Dillon Dube, Carsen Twarynski and Cal Foote. That is a loss of 321 points combined heading into next season. Gulp.
  • The team returns Kyle Topping, Leif Mattson, Connor Bruggen-Cate, Nolan Foote and Kaedan Korczak to name a few. Of the returning players next season, I thought Topping and Korczak showed the best in the four game playoff series. Topping had 2+3=5 in four games and Korczak looked extremely comfortable with 1+3=4.
  • So the season is officially over. The team exits the playoffs in the opening round in a four game sweep for the first time since 2012 when the Portland Winterhawks sent the Rockets packing. Having enjoyed four consecutive trips to the Western Conference final, it feels odd that the team isn't playing hockey after April Fools. This season, the joke is on the Rockets. They are the first team in the WHL playoffs to be eliminated and must now watch with envy as others attempt to attain the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

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