Sunday, January 20, 2019

Beating the big dogs

Shoot the Breeze Photography
  • What a difference a week makes! After two disappointing, head scratching, lethargic losses in Prince George last weekend, coupled with a less than impressive effort at home against the Moose Jaw Warriors Wednesday, things looked extremely bleak as the Kelowna Rockets faced the top two teams in the WHL. What made matters worse was the Rockets confidence level was as low as its been after earning one win in its opening 9 games of the regular season. Let's don't forget the team was also riding a 6 game losing streak heading into Everett, a place where only four teams (Tri City (twice) Vancouver/Portland) had beaten the Western Conference leaders. But something magical happened Thursday. Between a 5-1 home ice loss to the Warriors and Friday night's puck drop at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, something clicked. Was it GM Bruce Hamilton's presence on the team bus for the first time this season for the trip down south that had everyone focused? Was it a team dinner Thursday night in Everett where an innocent looking pre-meal game seemed to galvanized the team? Was it newly acquired d-man Matt Barberis' presence and the prospect of the about to turn 21 year-old making his debut with his new team? Whatever it was, the Rockets took a 180 degree turn for the better with an inspired 2-0 shutout win over the Tips Friday night followed by an equally impressive 4-3 home ice shootout victory against the CHL's top ranked Prince Albert Raiders a night later. Some could suggest Friday's game was luck. But claiming such a thing is ridiculous when the team came out 24 hours later and prove it again against the highest scoring team in the WHL. Neither win was a fluke. This wasn't a case of the opposition taking the floundering Rockets lightly. This was about a team, struggling to keep in the hunt for a playoff spot, finally playing for one another, with three key ingredients which included pace, urgency and enthusiasm.
  • What I liked most in both wins was the fact the Rockets weren't a one trick pony. They needed everyone to step up. The fourth line had to contribute. Ted Brennan turned into a bull and Liam Kindree was blocking shots. James Porter and Roman Basran were the best players on the ice, but goaltenders are expected to elevate their play, specifically when the team is struggling. Those two can be game changers and they answered the bell with terrific performances. Porter delivered with a 40 save shutout Friday and Basran wouldn't be outdone with 30 saves Saturday and first star honours. Was it any coincidence that Michael Farren, locked in a 26 game goal scoring drought, scored the game winner Friday night? Secondary scoring from someone other than the last name of Foote, Mattson and Topping has been a talking point in the teams less than average record. All of that chatter, for the moment, was put to rest when Farren scored his first goal since being acquired from the Saskatoon Blades and Mark Liwiski added an insurance marker against his former team. Then to parlay that victory into an unbelievable effort at home against the Raiders Saturday night, proves the belief, if it was lost was found, or maybe more accurately for the first time this season it was acquired. Regardless, it should serve the team well with just under two months left in the regular season. Better to be a team peaking late than early. With 23 games left before the playoffs, the third best team statistically in the BC Division now knows what it takes to win. Now its a matter of going out, following the footprint and executing it consistently. 
  • The most encouraging sign in Saturday's win against the Raiders was the teams ability not to cower against the quickest team we've witnessed at Prospera Place this season. Sure, the Raiders opened the scoring less than five minutes into the game, but the Rockets didn't fold like a cheap tent. Earlier this season they likely would have, but instead of reeling, the Rockets began to roll with a Kyle Topping goal followed by the puck coming off the stick of Nolan Foote with maximum velocity, making even the crowd into believers that the home team had the same mojo they exhibited the night prior in Everett. What the team showed in the third period, down 3-2, with a late power play chance to tie the game was a sign of what real good teams tend to do. With the game on the line, Lassi Thomson's slapper, glove hand side on Raiders goalie Ian Scott, had the majority of the 5,204 fans in the building jumping from their seats and realizing the improbable could be possible. Nolan Foote scored the lone goal in the shootout and Basran, with a little help from his goal posts, lifted the team to its biggest victory of the season. Luck? Nope, I'm not buying it. Win one, possibly? Win two and it can only be suggested that its the start of something new.

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