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|Bad blood was evident even before puck drop|
'The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat.'
It's the famous line from Jim McKay on ABC's Wide World of Sports.
Staying alive in a playoff series with the Seattle Thunderbirds with an overtime win in game four, the Kelowna Rockets went from thrill to nil in less than 48 hours. A goal just 1:20 into the extra session in game five and it was over in an instant.
The odds were clearly stacked against the Rockets to make a comeback from a 0-3 deficit, but the game five effort by the underdog had you pondering if the improbable was possible.
I knew coming into game five that three things would have to happen for the Rockets to survive another day. Goaltending would have to be elite. Discipline would have to be paramount and the teams true character would have to reveal itself once again to send the series back across the border for a game six on Sunday. All three were prominent which made the loss that much tougher to swallow. Talyn Boyko was the best player on the ice. His MVP skills were on display. The Rockets allowed the T-Birds just two power play chances and the penalty killing unit was on point. While the ice was tilted in the T-Birds favour throughout the night, I was not under the illusion going into the game that it wouldn't be the case. Without Pavel Novak and Mark Liwiski in the lineup, this was about escaping with a road victory with 53 combined goals and 118 combined points out of the lineup. Had a game six been played, Liwiski would have been back from a two game suspension while Novak (29 goals this season) was a possibility for a triumphant return after missing games four and five.
Things looked grim. Down 3-1 with 10 minutes left in the third period, a Jake Lee tally made it a one goal game before Gabriel Szturc scored :10 seconds later and it was 3-3. It had all the makings of a comeback and the sense the road team would prevail despite the odds stacked against them.
Heading into overtime, the upset was clearly in place. With a goalie dialed in and the Rockets playing with house money, you could sense another overtime win for a team that had so much success playing 17 times in extra time time this season.
It wasn't to be though.
Was it a bad stick? Was it buckling under the pressure? In the sequence before the game winning goal was scored, Captain Tyson Feist attempted to clear the zone, but his stick gave out on him. It created a turnover that T-Birds forward Jordon Gustafson gathered up and fired a hard shot that Tayln Boyko is able to get a shoulder on. As the Rockets scrambled to regain the puck, Feist was seen skating towards the front of his own net leaning on his stick several times to see if the shaft was broken. Eventually the puck is cleared before Rockets again regroup with it in their own zone. Elias Carmichael passes it to Feist. The 21 year-old misses the puck on a first pass attempt, weakly moves in along the boards a second time before losing it again to Gustafson a third time. The T-Birds 23 goal man promptly sends the puck to teammate Reid Shaefer for a two-on-one with Matthew Rempe. As fate would have it, Rempe received the pass, waits for Boyko to go down to the butterfly and beats him glove side, short side.
Game over. Season over.
'The thrill of victory to the agony of defeat'. Powerful words from Jim McKay when describing the human drama of athletic competition.
Here is my theory.
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Ok, let’s proceed.
The Kelowna Rockets played some calorie-free games down the stretch. What does that mean? With nowhere to go in the Western Conference standings and eight regular season games against teams below them in the standings to close out the season, they played good enough to win (8 of those 9) but they weren’t forced to play at an elite level or pace. Head Coach Kris Mallette astutely recognized this and attempted to mimic higher intensity situations in practice that would make his team more battle tested and ready for a first round opponent in the Seattle Thunderbirds.
But like changing the formula of Coca-Cola, it’s just not the same thing. Real game action is the only way to truly get up to speed on how well coached and how well top teams are able to execute against you.
I’d suggest it took the Rockets two games in this series to catch up to the pace, physicality and mental resolve needed to play with the big boys.
I’d suggest the Rockets can play better. The Rockets power play has resurrected from the dead and leading scorer Colton Dach is still without a point in this series. He has to break out eventually.
The scores in this series don’t lie. A 6-0 loss in game one. A 7-3 setback in game two, which despite losing by four, was better than the night prior. It was hard to see through the disappointment of not getting a split at ShoWare Center. A game three loss at home had the Rockets score the opening goal and set the table for a terrific finish in a tied hockey game (1-1) until Mark Liwiski’s ill advised high hit that resulted in a four goal third period by the visitors and a 5-1 home ice loss.
Again, game three was a step towards the better before a game four victory in overtime without Liwiski (suspended) and Pavel Novak (undisclosed). It’s playoffs kids. Injuries are on the down low. Get with it!
What I’ve seen is the Rockets play improved hockey throughout this series. Game one was terrible. Game two was just ok, but game three was a sign the ship was turning away from rough waters. In an elimination game last night, going down 2-0 on the scoreboard wasn’t ideal, but the way they came back to tie it before Adam Kydd’s goal sent us to Seattle for game five was impressive.
It’s suggested the Rockets got up to speed too late in this series. That may be true. Down 3-1, the Rockets must win out or the season is over.
The 2021-2022 edition of the Kelowna Rockets heard the naysayers last fall, where the word ‘can’t’ was used several times when it came to – they ‘can’t’ win 40 games or they ‘can’t’ be one of the top teams in the Western Conference or they ‘can’t’ make the playoffs.
If they continue this trend of getting better game-by-game, I’d suggest the 2021-2022 edition of the Kelowna Rockets indeed can!
Oh my. Wow,. Holy smoke. Terrific. Just some of the words that came out of my mouth last night in watching the Kelowna Rockets rough up the Victoria Royals in a 5-0 win. This was relentless. It was wave upon wave of pressure hockey. The forecheck was as good as I've seen. No player lacked effort. The use of teammates was as good as I've seen and the bar has clearly been raised with this performance. Granted, this was against a lesser opponent, but that's what it should look like if you indeed - quietly - consider yourself a better team. You should be executing and not playing down to the level of the opponent. You should be dictating the play. I'd argue the Rockets were significantly better Saturday night against the Royals then they were a night prior in a 9-2 victory over Prince George. This game should be used as a reference point of how good this team can play.
|Colton Dach looking loose in pre-game warmup|
|Pavel Novak's facial expression tells it all|
|Photo credit - Allen Douglas|
While not mathematically eliminated from catching the Kamloops Blazers for first place in the BC Division, the Kelowna Rockets took another step backwards this weekend. After playing well and likely deserving a better fate in a 3-2 shootout loss Friday night at Prospera Place, the Blazers used a Dylan Garand 33 save shutout performance one night later in a 4-0 win. It was the second time this season the team has been shut out on the road, losing 2-0 in Vancouver way back in October.
The Rockets now sit 14 points back of the Blazers with time ticking down. While holding three games in hand, the focus should be on securing home ice advantage in what appears to be a guaranteed date with the Seattle Thunderbirds in the opening round of the WHL playoffs. It’s more realistic and attainable to set your sights on Seattle with 12 games left in the regular season. While still able to catch Kamloops for first, lots would have to go right and much would have to go wrong for the Blazers.
Saturday’s fourth consecutive loss (0-2-0-2) didn’t lack emotion. It featured three fights and the coaches jawing at one another late in the game. One side will say the Rockets are poor sports for physical aggression late in the game while some may question Blazers leading scorer Logan Stankoven pointing at the score-clock or teammate Reese Belton doing a fly-by at the Rockets bench essentially waving goodbye with his glove hand. Gamesmanship? Sure. Depends which side your on. Good old fashioned hockey? Again, depends where your allegiances lie. One thing is clear, playing a home and home series on consecutive weekends against an arch geographical rival will stir up emotion.
It's a gut feeling. It's something that coaches don't like to do. Pulling your starting goalie is never the preferred option, but reading the situation correctly can do wonders in an effort to win a game. Kris Mallette was reluctant to do it Sunday afternoon when rookie goalie Jari Kykkanen surrendered three goals on 11 shots in the first period. Not wanting to put the blame on the shoulders of his back-stopper, Mallette made the difficult choice of replacing him with number one goalie Talyn Boyko. The move paid off. Boyko provided a mental spark, made a handful of solid saves and his teammates did a better job of defending in a 5-4 win over the Vancouver Giants. On the post game show, Mallette wanted to make it perfectly clear that the change in goal was more made out of necessity to spur his team on to defend better. Whatever you may think about the change in goal, the astute move helped the Rockets win a game they needed if they have any hope of catching Kamloops for first place in the BC Division. You really needed to win these games with the Blazers idle. It was the teams 34th victory of the season and moved them within 8 points with 16 games left in the regular season. The Blazers have 13 remaining.
|Credit: Brian Liesse photo|
"So proud of this group".
Those words from head coach Kris Mallette after his teams 4-3 road win Sunday against the Seattle Thunderbirds. He sure should be. Traveling through the night to meet the T-Birds in a 5 pm start is never easy. No, these junior teams don't fly. They bus. The 6+ hour drive from Kamloops, after losing 6-2 to the Blazers the night prior, meant the team put their sleepy head on a hotel pillow at 4:30 am. You can't sleep all day in an effort to prepare for the early start against the T-Birds. You need to dig deep and try to brush back that foggy feeling to prepare for a showdown against a team that leads you in the standings. Sleep deprived in what can only be described as a gutsy effort, the Rockets woke up Monday morning a point up, not a point behind, in the fight for fourth place in the Western Conference standings. Does the change in positioning mean a lot? You bet it does. If these two teams remain where they are when the regular season comes to a close, the 4th place team will have home ice advantage in round one. Who would have thought that the Rockets fighting major leader would score the biggest goals of his young WHL career? Rilen Kovacevic fired home his third goal of the season with 8 minutes left in the game and the Rockets handed the T-Birds a third consecutive loss with a 4-3 road victory.
|Pavel Novak - one of the best ever to wear Rockets colours|
Remember the children's book, 'The Little Engine That Could'?
The phrase often used was - I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.
It appears the 2021-2022 edition of the Kelowna Rockets have taken it a step further.
I know I can, I know I can, I know I can.
We witnessed it again last night in a 3-1 win over the visiting Vancouver Giants. Trailing 1-0 after 40 minutes, the home team played to a quicker pace, put the foot on the accelerator and scored three unanswered goals in their 22nd win of the season. The Giants lost for the first time in 15 games when holding the lead after two periods. One common theme is this teams ability to elevate in the third period. Again, the numbers only punctuate my point. Not only has this team allowed a league low - 23 - third period goals against - they've scored 49 times in the final frame. The third period, specifically, is when the Rockets play at their best.