Friday, December 27, 2019

Rockets open unofficial second half vs. Blazers

Devin Steffler - Shoot the Breeze Photo

·     Tonight’s Preview: Welcome back to the unofficial second half of the season for the Kelowna Rockets. The team has played 32 games to this point, sporting a record of 18-11-1-2. That is good for second place in the BC Division, 6 points back of first place Kamloops in the BC Division (Rockets have one game in hand) and three points up on third place Victoria (Royals have one game in hand). The Rockets face the Kamloops Blazers tonight in the 6th time this season. The Rockets are just 1-3-1-0 in the five previous games, with three of them decided by a single goal including a 4-3 win back on November 16th.  The Rockets are in a portion of their schedule playing 6 consecutive home games against teams in the BC Division. After tonight’s game, the team is in Vancouver (Langley) tomorrow night before welcoming Prince George Monday (7 P.M) December 30th.   
·         Senior Citizens Settle in:  The two newest members of the team made their home debuts before the Christmas break. Matthew Wedman, acquired in a trade with Seattle December 5th, showcased his talents in front of the home town faithful on December 18th. The 20 year-old led the T-Birds in scoring last season with 40+37=77 and played 275 games in a Seattle uniform. Twenty year-old d-man Conner McDonald also made his debut December 18th with three assists in a 4-3 loss to visiting Vancouver. McDonald was obtained from the Edmonton Oil Kings Saturday night. McDonald scored 19 goals back on the blue-line last season, which was the second highest total only behind Giants rearguard Bowen Byram.   
·         The Price is Right: The Rockets also completed a trade with the Moose Jaw Warriors November 24th by acquiring 20 year-old Jadon Joseph. Joseph was a member of the Vancouver Giants last season that went all the way to the WHL final. Joseph has 58 games of playoff experience under his belt, the most on the Rockets roster.     
·         Broadcasters Notebook: Nolan Foote is playing for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships, becoming the 18th player in the organization to do so….10 of the Rockets last 11 games have been decided by one goal…The Rockets have played in 18-1 goal games this season, the most in the WHL…. Roman Basran was named the WHL Eli Wilson goaltender of the week in back-to-back weeks ending December 1st…Nolan Foote was named the 25th captain in franchise history (Tacoma/Kelowna) October 18th…The Rockets have played in a Western Conference high 19 road games.  

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Rockets don't cower with less than loaded lineup

  • 12 points up for grabs. 8 collected. Cha Ching! The Kelowna Rockets completed its longest road trip of the season in fine form Saturday night in Moose Jaw with a 5-4 overtime win. A loss against the Warriors would have stung. The trip would have only been regarded as partially successful had that happened, considering the team roared out of the gates with three straight wins (PA/Saskatoon/Brandon). Had the team lost three in a row to end the trip, the bus ride home, while still painful, would have felt twice as long. The good news was Kaedan Korczak didn't allow that to happen. The 18 year-old (turns 19 in late January) scored a massive shorthanded goal in the third period and then scored the game winner in overtime. The Rockets left Mosaic Place with a 4-2-0-0 record while claiming the final game of the road trip without five regulars in the lineup. One word - impressive.
  • Not once on this swing did the team play with a full lineup. A 2-1 win in Prince Albert had rookie sensation Pavel Novak serving the 7th game of an 8 game suspension. Since the 17 year-old dynamo has been serving his sentence, the power play has really gone flat. When he finally returned Tuesday in Brandon, the power play unit got kicked in the teeth again with the loss of Nolan Foote to the world junior's. It was believed Dillon Hamaliuk, who missed the opening two games with illness would return for the games in Manitoba, but the team sent out a news release saying the 19 year-old was fighting a virus and wouldn't play at all on the trip. Another blow and more adversity for a team who did get an injection of hope before the trip began when GM Bruce Hamilton made a significant trade acquiring 20 year-old forward Matthew Wedman. Wedman played in every game on the trip, providing some spark offensively while taking massive pressure away from several players that just aren't ready for prime time.
  • Novak had four points (2+2=4 in four games) on the road trip. That's impressive when you consider his age. I really like him. While quiet on the bus, his teammates love him and I think he really loves playing here in North America. I sit right across from him on the team bus and he often has a smile on his face. I'm glad that he is happy with his decision to play in Kelowna and that its met his expectations. Novak has far exceeded mine.  
  • Grinding through four games in five night's, the team suffered another blow Friday when 19 year-old Sean Comrie separated his shoulder after crashing into the end boards in a disappointing 4-3 loss to the lowly Regina Pats. The result at the Brandt Centre was the low point of the trip, where I thought the team looked as gassed as they did two days prior in a 3-1 setback in Winnipeg. Losing Comrie for the last game of the trip was a setup for disaster, or so many thought. Thankfully several players stepped up to earn their 18th win of the season. Take a bow Michael Farren and Alex Swetlikoff. 
  • Kaedan Korczak led the Rockets with 8 points in 6 games. The defenceman looked especially good in Regina and Moose Jaw, but those two teams are at the bottom of the Eastern Division standings. The second round draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights often dominated. End to end rushes were common place, and really for the first time since I saw him skate on WHL ice, the Yorkton, Saskatchewan product looked like a gifted offensive d-man. Last season he could sit back and watch Lassi Thomson let loose with the puck, but with the Ottawa Senators first rounder applying his trade in Finland, Korczak has accelerated his offensive play. Will it work against better teams is the question mark. Against weaker teams, Korczak was able, for the most part, to cover up high risk mistakes. I would think more caution will be needed against top end teams that make you pay for any misgivings you make that could be considered as high risk plays. In my opinion he was the best player on the ice in the final two games and looked the freshest physically. 
  • Alex Swetlikoff had a fairly decent road trip. Required to play bigger minutes, the 18 year-old had a three point game in Moose Jaw (1+2=3) and had several quality chances to score in Regina the night prior. With 22 shots on net in the six games, that's a great sign for a player who has equaled his point total from all of last season. The only thing he needs to do is play a more pissed off game. Play to your size. Nope, fighting is not what I am suggesting, but get involved physically and play a bigger man's game. At 6'4 and 190 pounds, that size is ideal in the centre ice position if he plays with power. My suggestion is watch Matthew Wedman. Play like Matthew Wedman. Be a mirror image. 
  • The goalies saw time between the pipes on the trip. Both had ups and downs. Roman Basran was solid in the opener in Prince Albert and was the first star in a surprising win in Brandon. Against lesser teams, the 18 year-old struggled by allowing 4 goals in back to back games against the Pats and Warriors. That said, a massive paddle save in the third period in Moose Jaw could have been considered a game saver. Cole Schwebius let in a softy against Winnipeg, but rebounded nicely with solid stops to keep the score close. I love Schwebius' mental resilience.  
  • Only once in the six games were the Rockets able to carry the lead into the third period. That happened in Prince Albert with a 1-0 lead after 40 minutes. In five games they either trailed or were tied (1-1 with Brandon in game three) going into the final frame. 
  • Is it any surprise with the players out of the lineup that 5 of the 6 games on the Eastern Division swing were decided by one goal? The Rockets have played in a WHL high 17-1 goal games this season. Without Kyle Topping, Liam Kindree, Dillon Hamaliuk and  missing leading scorer Nolan Foote for four games really hurt the teams ability to generate quality scoring chances. With Pavel Novak missing in action against the Raiders and Blades, it was easy to accept the team wasn't going to blow the doors off of anyone. 
  • The toughest part of the trip came at the conclusion of the overtime win in Moose Jaw. The team made a trade, acquiring 20 year-old Conner McDonald from the Edmonton Oil Kings for a first and third rounder. Considered an overpayment, the move had to be made to find a d-man who can quarterback the power play. Kaedan Korczak can play a role on it, but they need someone else to fill the massive void left by Lassi Thomson. McDonald is that guy after scoring 19 goals last season. The sad part was saying goodbye to good guy Carsen Sass. Sass wasn't flashy in anyway, but Rockets head coach Adam Foote paid tribute to the player who changed the culture of the dressing room in the short time he wore Kelowna Rockets colours.                 
  • So after copious amounts of time on the bus and kilometers under their belt, the team faces one last test before Christmas against the Vancouver Giants on Wednesday. No Nolan Foote. No Bowen Byram. After 18 days away from Prospers Place, it would be nice to see the team reward the fans with a win. Call it opening a Christmas gift early.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Road trip can go from good to great

  • After two games this week in Manitoba, the Kelowna Rockets head back to Saskatchewan where it all began. The bi-annual trek through the prairies started last Friday with an upset of the defending WHL champion Prince Albert Raiders. With 6 games in 9 night's, I didn't project the team to win at the Art Hauser Centre. I also didn't envision a victory against high flying Brandon, but this group, which is playing without four of its top forwards, is finding lightning in a bottle. They are getting it done. Style points? No. Gutsy, gritty efforts? Yepper! Sure, a lackluster effort in Winnipeg Wednesday night put a blemish on the road trip, but two wins this weekend against Regina and Moose Jaw and the Memorial Cup hosts can head home with a 5-1-0-0 record. That would be spectacular and something I would have taken in a heartbeat when the team left Prospera Place 9 days ago.
  • The Brandon win was an impressive one. The Wheat Kings were coming off a wild 5-4 shootout loss to the Kamloops Blazers five days prior. The Wheat Kings are like a race horse. The Rockets are like a Clydesdale that has superior pulling power. Sure, a little slower but tough to play against. I loved how the Rockets managed the clock, opened the scoring with the power play and kept within striking distance by getting the game into overtime. Starting goaltender Roman Basran weaved his magic by playing sharp before newly acquired Matthew Wedman scored the winner in the skills competition. From a purely tactical standpoint, it was executed pretty much to perfection.
  • The game I questioned coming into the road trip was a stop in Winnipeg. While only separated by 213 kilometers (Brandon to Winnipeg), the team was playing back-to-back games and arrived at the hotel at 1 am in the morning to only magnified things. Plus, the Ice had won 7 straight at home and visiting team's, for whatever reason, struggle playing at the Wayne Fleming Arena. The Ice are now 11 and 4 in that antiquated facility. The Rockets looked out of sync. Tired possibly? A little apathetic maybe? The passing was off, the desperation wasn't there and Cole Schwebius, in his second start on this trip, would have had to been flawless for the visitors to escape with a victory. The Ice looked off too as the skill level was reduced with several key forwards absent from both rosters which resulted in  several trips to the penalty box and both teams combined for three too many men penalties. That is usually a sign of a lack of mental engagement when line changes should been pretty much seamless at this time of the season. The Rockets weren't good. It wasn't there night. While they were rolling with 5 straight road wins and points in 9 straight, you knew the dam would eventually break, which it did.
  • So with 3 wins in 4 games with tons of travel, the team should have a good mindset heading into tilts with the Pats and Warriors to close out the trip. Both east division teams are struggling this season. The Rockets have 17 wins. Regina and Moose Jaw have 17 wins combined! Friday's opponent, the Pats, have 3 wins on home ice, the fewest (Red Deer has 3) in the WHL this season. If the Rockets play like they can, with Thursday to regroup despite a 6 hour bus ride from Winnipeg to Saskatchewan's capital, two points are attainable. Play like they did Wednesday and this trip turns from delicious to disappointing. Friday night's tilt is a biggy.                 
  • I always think this road trip comes at just the right time. It allows many of the Rockets players to showcase themselves in front of family and friends. Many with son's from Saskatchewan and Manitoba follow the team along the way and it can't but provide a psychological lift for many of them. It was nice to run into the Wilton's and the Ernst's along the way. Both Dallon Wilton and Ethan Ersnt are playing with some added pop in their game on this road trip.
  • It was nice to see rookie Pavel Novak return to the lineup Tuesday in Brandon. While assisting on a power play goal from Matthew Wedman to open the scoring, it will take the 17 year-old some time to regain the form he showed prior to an eight game suspension back on November 11th. It's a mental battle for a player who also can't wait to return to his home in the Czech Republic for Christmas.      
  • Matthew Wedman has 1+2=3 in four games with his new team. The 20 year-old has also taken a penalty in all four games he has played. After failing to record a shot on goal in Prince Albert to start the trip, the 7th round NHL draft pick of the Florida Panthers has 14 shots in his last three games. Wedman is tied for the league lead in penalty minutes with 58. 
  • Roman Basran has played in two of the four games, getting night's off against Saskatoon and Winnipeg. In his last 6 starts, the 18 year-old (doesn't turn 19 until July) has allowed one goal or less 5 times. You would think he will carry the mail the rest of the way with back-to-back starts this weekend. 
  • It would be nice to see a few players finally score for the first time wearing Kelowna Rockets colours. Jadon Joseph has yet to score in five games with his new team while Devin Steffler and rookie Elias Carmichael have yet to light the lamp. It would be nice to see those three be rewarded against two of the weaker sisters in the WHL this weekend. 
  • I will never forget defencive defenceman Cole Martin scoring his first career WHL goal in Regina in December of 2011. That night Martin had a goal and an assist and was named the third star. Martin would go on to score only 10 career goals in 280 games, but it was that night in Regina that things went wonderfully for him offensively. 
  • When you are traveling as extensively as we have over the past week, practice time is kept to a minimum. To this point in the trip, with four games in six night's, the team has been on the ice only twice, with a practice in Strathmore Alberta on the way out here and a pre-game skate in Brandon before Tuesday's game at Westoba Place.
  • The Rockets are within four points of the Blazers in the fight for first place in the BC Division heading into the weekend. The Rockets have the easier schedule. Kamloops closes the prairie road trip with stops in Saskatoon and Prince Albert.  

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Prairie air is perfect!

  • Maybe the cold prairie air isn't so bad? For the Kelowna Rockets, its darn right refreshing. Two games in the books and two victories. One in Prince Albert and the other in Saskatoon. Shucks, winning is fun, especially when its accomplished on the road. The Rockets are riding a season high four game road winning streak, having carved out wins over Seattle (3-2), Tri City (2-1), Prince Albert (2-1) and Saskatoon (4-3 in a shootout). The theme over those four games is a slim margin between winning and losing, but learning to play in those tight games, and winning them, is extremely valuable. Remember, this is all being accomplished essentially without Kyle Topping, Liam Kindree, Pavel Novak and most recently Dillon Hamaliuk. 
  • Let's look back at Friday's win in Prince Albert. Sure, the Raiders didn't have their leading scorer in the lineup that night, but as mentioned, the visiting team didn't exactly have a loaded gun either. The Rockets really played that game they way they need too in order to beat a Raiders club that had previously lost only once at the Art Hauser Centre this season. The Rockets generated only 15 shots on net, but the Raiders took several foolish penalties and the visitors power play clicked at the most opportune time. 
  • Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid had a great quote after the game, believing the referee's coward to Rockets head coach Adam Foote's every request. "There were three soft calls. They talked to him all night. I don't know if they (referee's) wanted his autograph because he is a Stanley Cup champion or what? It didn't look good. They talked to him all night. He ran line changes. He did whatever he wanted. He slowed the game down and they just let him do it. I don't know if they wanted his autograph or what the deal was"? That quote is gold...but it may get Habscheid fined. 
  • A night later in Saskatoon, the Rockets were able to get a late third period goal to send the game into overtime before winning it in a shootout. The tying goal had some controversy surrounding it after Nolan Foote's follow through clipped Blades d-man Scott Walford. With the 20 year-old face down on the ice with blood visibly cascading on the ice, the Rockets maintained possession of the puck with Foote setting up rookie Trevor Wong for the equalizer. Should the play have been whistled down? It is at the discretion of the referee's, but because the Rockets maintained possession of the puck, play continued. It was Wong's first goal in 15 games.
  • In the dying moments of regulation time, Blades 20 year-old Nolan Kneen made contact with forward Nolan Foote at the Rockets blue-line. Boarder line dirty, Foote went down and grimmest in pain as teammate Matthew Wedman engaged in a fight with Kneen, who felt obligated to answer the bell. Foote was able to skate off the ice and did return for overtime and the shootout while Wedman showed the organization his value by standing up for a teammate.
  • Why did Rockets head coach Adam Foote elect to use 17 year-old Ethan Ernst in the shootout? Ernst has just one goal this season. The third round bantam pick has just two goals in 84 career WHL games. The fact is, in practice, where they work on these things, Ernst is pretty good at it. Boy, did he show quick, slick hands on the deke to score the game winning goal. Ernst had family and friends from Weyburn in attendance to cheer him on.
  • It was nice to see Michael Farren score in his return to Sask-Tel Centre. The 19 year-old had a little more jump in his step against his old team and opened the scoring on a real nice individual effort. It has been tough for Farren to find traction in Kelowna after putting up a career high 11 goals with the Blades in 2017-2018. In his rookie year, again with Saskatoon, Farren had a career high 30 points, so much was expected from him to be an elite goal scorer. Turning 20 in April, the Richmound, BC product is looking forward to a strong second half. 
  • The Rockets trailed 3-2 heading into the third period. It marked only the second time this season they were able to battle back and eventually win. The team is now 2 and 7 when trailing after 40 minutes.
  • The most amazing statistic is this one. Without Pavel Novak in the lineup for 8 games (suspension), the Rockets went 7-0-0-1. At the time of his suspension, the 17 year-old was leading the team in scoring. Novak is back in the lineup Tuesday in Brandon.  
  • The Rockets have points in 8 games (7-0-0-1) with 7 of the 8 decided by a single goal. The only game over that stretch not decided by one goal was a 4-1 victory over the Victoria Royals.
  • Can we hand out the teams top defenceman award already. Kaedan Korczak is a slam dunk winner. 
  • Most improved player? Jake Poole. I think he has come miles since he opened the season with the team. Tip of the cap to Poole for working on his game and the coaches for putting him into situations to succeed. It is hard for me not to believe that bigger is better. At 6'1 and closing in on 190 pounds, when 'big boy hockey' is required, those with a larger frame seem to really stand out.
  • Speaking of 'big boy hockey', both games out here on this prairie road trip have been extremely physical. The timid and shy better sit this one out, as the Raiders and Blades were not scared to set the tone with hard hitting hockey. When the game gets a little greasy and board battles are the name of the game, the Rockets best defender for me is Jake Lee. Lee won't dazzle you with great foot speed or a pounding blast from the blue-line, but heck is he ever effective when bodies are flying everywhere and hard nosed play is required.
  • You can tell the Rockets are playing a heavier game with the acquisition of Jadon Joseph and Matthew Wedman. The team looks visually bigger and those two players likely make everyone play with a little more courage and bite in their game.  
  • The atmosphere in Prince Albert was really, really good. Winning helps that obviously and the fans up there deserve to support a winner and feel proud about their team. I went down during the first intermission and walked through the 'Ches Leach Lounge' where it was absolutely packed. Fans are wearing Raiders green and its really impressive to see. These are true, prairie hockey fans at its finest. It is an awesome spectacle. Good on ya Prince Albert.     
  • The Blades game Saturday night featured a 'Girls Rock Night' theme. I liked it. I remember a similar event in 2011 when the Rockets paid a visit where Haley Wickenheiser was the featured guest. The best part of the event, in my opinion, was an 11 year-old girl introducing the Blades starting lineup over the PA system. Showing lots of enthusiasm, it was a nice change to the 34 home games the Blades play at Sask-Tel Centre. 
  • It is off to Manitoba now for games in Brandon (Tuesday) and Winnipeg (Wednesday). The rest of the road trip will be played without leading scorer Nolan Foote (World Juniors), but Pavel Novak is back in the lineup and Dillon Hamaliuk is expected to return after an illness. I am told Tuesday night's low in Brandon is expected to be -28! Buckle we go!