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.  

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