Monday, March 11, 2019

Will the Rockets make the playoffs?

Shoot the Breeze Photography
  • We knew a goaltender with the first name Dylan would play a prominent role in this weekend's home and home series between the Kelowna Rockets and the Kamloops Blazers. What we didn't know is the last name Garand, not Ferguson, would steal the spotlight. With Blazers MVP Dylan Ferguson on the shelf with a lower body injury, 16 year-old backup Dylan Garand took centre stage and backstopped the Blazers to back-to-back 2-1 wins to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Garand provided even more anxious moments for a Rockets team that now have a slim 4 point lead for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. In allowing only two goals in two games, Garland has given the Blazers a fighter's chance. Without question, the Blazers are still in trouble with four games remaining, but Garand's strong play has them nipping at the heels of a Rockets team that had a 7 point lead coming into the weekend.
  • Am I surprised by the weekend results? In a way yes. In a way no. With the way the Rockets were playing coming into the weekend, with three points against Portland last weekend, I thought they would jump all over the Blazers. It looked like a mismatch heading into the two games with the Blazers, who had only one win in 6 games including a lacklustre 5-0 home ice loss Wednesday to the Vancouver Giants. It was in that game that Dylan Ferguson was injured. The Blazers were mentally fragile and the Rockets had them by the throat, but sadly they didn't seize the opportunity Friday night and played one of their most listless games of the season.
  • We should mention the Rockets lost defenceman Lassi Thomson to injury Friday night after a collision with Blazers captain Jeramine Loewen in the second period. Thomson's absence leaves a significant hole on the d-core, specifically one that generates very little in the way of offense. But Thomson's defending is also underrated and his value at both ends of the ice is evident when you don't see the 18 year-old patrolling the blue line. Logging big minutes, it adds additional pressure to everyone including Kaedan Korczak, who has been primarily responsible for shutting down the others teams top players. Without Thomson, Korczak is tasked with being a defender, a penalty killer, a puck mover and a key component on the power play. Rookies Devin Steffler and Cayde Augustine are asked to log bigger minutes and are doing their best in an effort to make an impact. 
  • The loss of Mark Liwiski to a three game suspension was also a factor in the two losses. Arguably one of the hottest goal scorers the team has had in the last month, the 17 year-old excels against heavy teams like the Blazers, while not as physical as a season ago, still like to send you to the ice if you don't have your head up. Liwiski missed both games on the weekend while serving games one and two of a three game suspension. Liwiski is 5th on the team in goals with 10. 
  • Before we get carried away and throw the baby out with the bathwater, I would be extremely concerned if the Rockets lost both games by scores of let's say; 5-1 and 7-3. Both were one goal losses with the Rockets clearly the aggressor in the final stages of Saturday's game but were unable to find the equalizing goal. Did the pressure get to them? Perhaps. The team is still in the drivers seat even though a 7 point lead on Kamloops has been reduced to 4 points. I rather be in the Rockets position than the other way around, but with three games left to go, sub-par efforts, whoever is in and out of the lineup isn't acceptable.   
  • Heading into the final week of the regular season, could I have envisioned the Rockets being in this spot? To be honest, I'm glad they are in this position. Before the puck dropped on the 2018-2019 campaign, I knew it would be a struggle to earn a playoff berth. I was not under an illusion that the loss of the teams top 4 scorers (Lind/Dube/Foote/Twarynski) wouldn't have an impact on this seasons roster. For no impact to be felt, the returning core of players would need breakout seasons. Kyle Topping, Leif Mattson and Nolan Foote are the top three scorers. Topping and Mattson have reached and just exceeded their point totals after playing second fiddle last season. Now those three are the 'go to guys'. Foote has more goals and points, having played in 13 more games while staying out of sick bay. Those three have done the heavy lifting with Lassi Thomson putting up an impressive 41 points on the back end. The problem lies with several players that either haven't scored or have gone through huge stretches where they haven't found the back of the net. It adds up to the team having scored the third fewest goals in the WHL after scoring the 5th most a season ago.  The Rockets should feel fortunate that both the Blazers and Prince George Cougars are having down years. Had that not happened, the final three games of this season likely would have meant little with a non-playoff berth already decided.  
  • What happens from here? The Rockets have three games left and the Blazers have four. The Blazers play Tuesday ( home to Spokane), Wednesday (home to Victoria) before facing the Prince George Cougars in a home and home series this weekend. The Rockets host Spokane (Wednesday) before closing out the regular season this weekend against the Vancouver Giants. 
  • You can't but scoreboard watch this week. It is absolutely unavoidable. The best case scenario for the Rockets is this. If the Blazers lose Tuesday and Wednesday in regulation time and the Rockets earn no less than a point Wednesday against the visiting Chiefs, then the team is off to the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season. If the Blazers earn even a point in their next two games, the situation changes and the games on the weekend (Rockets and Blazers will have two each) are of massive importance. In a season full of challenges both on the ice and off it, it only seems fitting that the Rockets are faced with this situation with the regular season schedule winding down.   

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