Monday, May 2, 2022

Jim McKay said it best!

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. 

  • I really need to applaud Tayln Boyko for his resilience in this series. The 19 year-old was not good in game one or two. Neither was his teammates. That said, Boyko had to be the teams best player and he wasn't. Thankfully, it all changed after he was replaced in game three by rookie Jari Kykkanen. Instead of sulking or bailing on his teammates, the New York Rangers draft pick was brilliant in a game four overtime win and equally as good, if not better, in game five. Boyko made 40 saves and did all one can ask for in an effort to extend the series. 
  • What was with the booing in game five every time Jake Lee touched the puck? The Seattle faithful quickly turned on one of it's own in a hurry. Lee was sour before game four which resulted in some bad words at centre ice with T-Birds Captain Tyrell Bauer, but did that deserve jeers in return?  
  • Rookie Marcus Pacheco deserves some praise. With the loss of Liwiski and Novak, the 16 year-old made his playoff debut in game four. I'd suggest he looked more comfortable in game five with his elite skating ability on display. My fear was the likable Pacheco would play timid against a team that loves to initiate contact, but I was pleasantly surprised by how he didn't cower. That's why playoff hockey is so valuable. It pushes you out of a comfort zone and reveals that you are more resilient than even you think are.
  • In a previous post, I mentioned that the Rockets got better as the series went along. It really was the reason why I honestly believed the upset was on. A game five win in overtime would have set the wheels in motion that the Rockets could indeed accomplish something the 2013 team also did against Seattle. Down 0-3, the Rockets battled back to win games four, five, six and seven in dramatic fashion. 
  • Concerning? Colton Dach's lack of offensive production in the series. When your leading scorer during the regular season (29 goals and 79 points) is help pointless in all five games, the chances of advancing in the playoffs is very low. Was he hurt? Dach has joined the AHL's Rockford IceHogs for the playoffs, so technically his season continues. 
  • Jake Lee ended up being tied for the team lead in playoff points with 4. Andrew Cristall also had four assists in the five games. Adam Kydd and Gabriel Szturc each found the back of the net a team high - twice - in the series. The Rockets managed to score just 11 goals in 5 playoff games. It is tough to win with that lack of production. 
  • Kydd is a lock to be a 20 year-old on the team next season. Jake Poole and Tayln Boyko return as overage players as well. You have to wonder about Pavel Novak's future though. Typically, European born players don't return to junior if they are unsigned by the NHL team that draft them. They go back home and play pro. The Rockets would love to have the 72 point producer as a 20 year-old next season. The Minnesota Wild selected Novak in the 5th round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and have until June to sign him. If Novak returns to the WHL, it will be the first time the Rockets will have a European player on their roster, who's 20, since Jan Fadry was acquired from the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2001. Fadry had a great season, collecting 79 points in 56 games with his new team. Tomas Soustal was a 20 year-old in 2017, but was traded to the Edmonton Oil Kings just three games into his overage season.
  • The loss ended the junior careers of Lee, Tyson Feist and Mark Liwiski. That trio all had career seasons offensively, so those departures will be impactful. It will allow rookies Caden Price and John Babcock to play prominent roles moving forward. Price could quarterback the power play and Babcock can be that bull that shuts down the other teams top scorers. 
  • It was nice to call playoff hockey again. After an absence of four years (2018 was the last time), it was a pleasure calling pressure packed hockey. Thank you - the fan - for listening to the games this season, or watching them on the WHL webcast. I also want to thank long time colour analyst Gord McGarva for his commitment again this season. McGarva has been with me since 2009, and while he wasn't able to be by my side in the broadcast booth during the playoffs, he's assured me of his return when the puck drops this fall.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

What you say? We can't?

 

Here is my theory.

You want to hear it?

If not, close the window by clicking the X on the right of your computer.

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.

 The word ‘can’t’ is being used against them again.

 They ‘can’t’ come back and win this series.

 If they continue this trend of getting better game-by-game, I’d suggest the 2021-2022 edition of the Kelowna Rockets indeed can!

Monday, April 18, 2022

Rockets put regular season on ice


  • The 2021-2022 edition of the Kelowna Rockets will be remembered for playing one of the best team games - ever. While having individual skill, I'd argue the success was a direct result of playing for each other. With eight players with 40 or more points, it's a clear indicator that no one player was doing the heavy lifting.  With 250 goals scored, the team ended the regular season 9th in that category. That's a significant jump from the 2018-2019 team that scored 169 times - or 81 fewer goals. I use that comparison because it is the last time the team played a full 68 game regular season. The 2018-19 team had just four - 40+ point producers. Attention to defending was praised and applauded while offensive expression was discouraged. It often translated into overthinking and poor execution in an effort to get out of trouble. This season, head coach Kris Mallette has tried to stress the importance of defensive structure while loosening up the reins in the offensive zone. The 42 wins came as a direct result of making good decisions with the puck, calculated decision in the d-zone and transitioning it up ice without expending copious amounts of time and energy getting it out of danger. 
  • The Rockets won 25 times on home ice this season. It's the second most wins in the Western Conference behind only Everett, who won 26 times in front of the home town crowd. With only 6 regulation losses at Prospera Place, only Everett again was better with 4 setbacks.  
  • Colton Dach delivered. In his first season with the Kelowna Rockets, the just turned 19 year-old was the team leader in scoring. Considered a pure shooter coming into the season (he was 7th in the WHL in 2021-2022 in shots with 274), I envisioned him scoring goals, but honestly, his ability to set up teammates was likely even more impressive. What Dach did so well was winning puck battles in the corners or along the end boards and finding teammates in good scoring areas. Another aspect of Dach's game that may go unnoticed is how steady he is on his skates. He never falls down. I'd suggest his edge work is among the best on the team and his stability on his skates is exceptionally good. Another aspect of Dach that I like is his up tempo personality. In a time when many players are quiet/reserved and to themselves, the Fort Saskatchewan product is a lively personality that dressing rooms need. He isn't a dead head. Dach is focused and dialed in when it counts, but he is able to joke around with his teammates and keep them loose. In my experience with Colton Dach, in an interview setting or just observing him around his teammates, I have nothing but good things to say about his influence both on and off the ice. 
  • Pavel Novak led the Rockets in home goals with 21, which was three better than Colton Dach and Andrew Cristall. Dach was the team leader in home points with 54 and finished the season on a career high 9 game point streak. I'd again suggest Novak could be a massive difference maker in a playoff series with Seattle with his ability to provide secondary scoring and not playing on what would be considered the teams number one line. He should get better matchups that allows him to thrive. This will be a physical series though, where courage will be needed to play in traffic. Perimeter play will be the easy way out - but it will also lead to an early playoff exit. 
  • Jake Lee played in his final WHL regular season game Saturday night. It was his 142nd with the Rockets and 277th overall. Despite scoring just twice in his final 23 regular season games, my sense is the 21 year-old was concentrating more on defending, transitioning the puck up ice and trying to be a threat to score on the power play. It appeared to me he was dialing it down a notch when playing even strength. I think that's the smart move heading into the playoffs, where Lee will play huge minutes and will be busy defending against a T-Birds team that can come at you in waves. Lee is my pick for defenseman of the year for logging tons of ice time and anchoring the blueline.  
  • John Babcock earned the best +/- rating on the Rockets roster this season. It is a big deal for a defender to go through a rookie season +28. Trust me, it could be worse. Look at Medicine Hat defender Dru Krebs, who was a league worst -58.  Babcock will turn 18 this Sunday. 
  • Andrew Cristall had a magically season didn't he? A record breaking 28 goals for a 16 year-old and tying the franchise record for points by a 16 year-old with 69. Moving alongside Shane McColgan and surpassing him once (more goals), Cristall will garner a lot of attention from the T-Birds in the playoffs playing on a line with Mark Liwiski and Colton Dach. In a conversation with a few scouts over the weekend, they will be watching Cristall closely in this opening round series in an effort to get a better read on him when he becomes draft eligible next season. In fact, the number of scouts watching games, specifically this series, will be large with one telling me the other series in the Western Conference are irrelevant and not worth dissecting, with the balance of power so heavily tilted towards Everett, Kamloops and Portland, little can be gained by watching draft eligible players in those respective series. I am not sure that is accurate but an interest observation nonetheless. 
  • The Rockets played in 30-one goal games this season. The team earned points in 23 of them which tells you pressure packed hockey was the norm all season long. 
  • The one stat I loved this season was the teams ability to lock it down in the third period. With just 55 goals surrendered in the final frame, only Winnipeg (51) and Portland (52) were better and keeping the door shut. 
  • It was interesting watching things unfold Saturday night for playoff positioning in the Western Conference. With all the hype over a log jam for the 8th and final playoff spot and the prospect of a play-in game to decide things, it all fell flat when Victoria was eliminated with a loss to Spokane and Vancouver and Prince George made post season despite losses to the Blazers and Rockets respectively. To think, the Royals were 4 seconds away.....FOUR...from potentially earning a playoff birth this season. Instead of playing conservatively with the power play in a game in Kamloops April 8th, they surrendered a shorthanded goal in a 4-3 loss when Matthew Seminoff put the dagger into the Royals hearts at 19:56. When points are pivotal down the stretch and even a single one counts, it was best to play for the tie that night then go for the win. 
  • 53. That was the number of points needed to earn a spot in the playoffs in the Western Conference this season. It is the fewest points since Portland earned a playoff birth in 2002-2003 with only 51. Tri City also had 51 points in 1996-1997 and was off to the playoffs despite only 22 wins that season. 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Preparing for the playoff push

  • You knew it was going to happen. You could sense it. It's like the motorist you spot in your rear view mirror as you traverse your vehicle along Highway 97 from West Kelowna and begin the ascension over the W.R Bennett Bridge. The crazy driver you've spotted behind you is weaving dangerously in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed and you know eventually one of two things will happen. They will either cause a serious accident or a member of the RCMP will pull them over and slap the maniac behind the wheel with a ticket for dangerous driving. For the Kelowna Rockets, you could sense two subpar efforts Tuesday and Wednesday in Prince George, followed by a lossy goosy win over the hapless Vancouver Giants would eventually catch up to them. It did. On cue, in the rematch Sunday afternoon against a team 36 points below them in the standings and riding a season high 8 game losing streak to make matters worse, a lack of  urgency finally caught up to the Rockets in a 3-2 loss. The home team came out gangbusters in the first period but couldn't score, then slept through the second where the Giants popped in two quick goals :50 seconds apart. Realizing that their 6 game winning streak was in jeopardy, they played with pepper in the final 20 minutes but ran out of time against a team that was literally fighting for their playoff lives. 
  • They say winning comes with a price. You get sucked into a sense of complacency when things come too easy. Wins in Prince George did that. Maybe it started the week prior when the Rockets dismantled the Cougars and Royals on consecutive nights? Let's hope a late season hockey lesson was learned. The final exam isn't that far away. In fact, it starts April 22nd against the Seattle Thunderbirds. My belief is the 2021-2022 edition of the Kelowna Rockets will be ready when test time rolls around in less than two short weeks. 
  • What was really on the line this weekend for the Rockets was finishing fourth, which would have given them home ice advantage against the T-Birds in the opening round of the playoffs. If all of the top seeds in the Western Conference advance, outside of the T-Birds of course, Kris Mallette's team will have to learn to win on the road regardless with four of seven games in a series being played away from Prospera Place. That said, I would rather have the luxury of playing a seventh game in front of a hometown crowd as opposed to earning a do-or-die victory at the accesso Showare Centre, but you can't cry over spilled milk now. What's done is done. The loss against the Giants on Sunday and the T-Birds win over Everett assured the two teams will finish fourth and fifth with Seattle earning the luxury of having home ice advantage.
  • All was not lost on the weekend. The good? Despite a loose 8-4 win Saturday night over the G-Men, it was the teams' 40th of the season. The Kelowna Rockets are one of only eight teams across the league - one of five in the Western Conference - that have reached that mark. It's an impressive achievement considering we played an abbreviated season last spring which saw the Rockets suit up for only 16 of 22 games. Playing consistent hockey for essentially six months is no small feat when many suggested the team would struggle to earn 30 victories with the loss of marquee d-man Kaedan Korczak and 20 year-old Dillon Hamaliuk to pro hockey.  
  • I heard a smart hockey man say this week, 'sometimes you are so close to the glass, you don't see the entire picture'. It is so true. You need to step back sometimes to realize that everything is ok. It's good. This team will be ready and locked in for post season play because they are so darn hard to play against. The coaches scrutinize every move and mistake and are always asking for more. Even as a broadcaster, I get caught up in believing that good isn't good enough. Maybe it's what I've witnessed in the past that concerns me. I remember the 2017-2018 edition of the Kelowna Rockets that won 43 times only to lose an opening round playoff series in four straight to the Tri City Americans. In a blink of an eye, the season was over. Done. The empty feeling of having such a great regular campaign only to exit so quickly left everyone stunned. I don't want this group experiencing what Dillon Dube, Kole Lind, Cal and Nolan Foote and Carsen Twarynski went through when the Americans scored the game winning goal - in game four - with :55 seconds left in the third period. As the higher seed, the Rockets were eliminated.
  • Andrew Cristall did it. I didn't think he would, but he is the new franchise leader in goals by a 16 year-old. By putting 26 pucks past WHL goalies this season, he moved past Shane McColgan and Nick Merkley for top spot among raw rookies in the same age group. All three scored their 25th goals against the exact same team - the Vancouver Giants. McColgan set the new record during the 2009-2010 season with his 25th goal in his 70th game. Merkley tied it in his 66th and final game of the regular season in 2013-2014. Cristall did it quicker, taking 58 games to earn goal #25 to tie the record and goal #26 in the same game to break it.  
  • It will be interesting to see what type of impact Andrew Cristall makes in the WHL playoffs. Sixteen year-old's often do little, but as we've learned this season, the pride of Burnaby is no ordinary player. Neither was Nick Merkley, who put up 17 points in 14 playoff games as a 16 year-old in the 2014 post season before the Rockets lost out to Portland in five games in the Western Conference final. It was a different story for McColgan though. In his 16 year-old season, despite scoring 25 times, he found the back of the net just once and added three assists in 12 playoff games against Everett and Tri City. I'd suggest the talent pool around Merkley was much better than what Shane McColgan witnessed in the spring of 2010. 
  • Who is the Kelowna Rockets most valuable player? If you evaluate performance solely on points and second half production, then Colton Dach is your man. The 19 year-old has 16+36=52 since the team returned from the Christmas break. Take note though, Andrew Cristall has scored the most of anyone on the roster since opening gifts under the Christmas tree with a whopping 20 goals and 50 points. Let's make the waters even muddier when I tell you overage forward Mark Liwiski has the second most goals - 18 - since he enjoyed egg nog with family back in Dauphin, Manitoba in mid-December. If I had my way, it isn't a point producer that would get my MVP vote. It would be a player that prevents goals. Tayln Boyko is my pick. When the 19 year-old arrived on the scene and made his Kelowna Rockets debut back on November 10th against Kamloops, a quiet confidence took over the entire group. 
  • When the T-Birds and Rockets meet in the opening round, more players than not will make their WHL playoff debuts. Even veteran players like Mark Liwiski (played in play-in game vs. Kamloops) and Tyson Feist, two 20 year-old's, will be void of any real post season experience. Jake Lee will hit the ice against his old team with 11 games under his belt, all when he was a member of the Seattle Thunderbirds. Lukas Svejkovsky will have the luxury of having the most playoff games on either side - after dressing in 22 games during the Vancouver Giants run to the WHL championship in 2019. 

Sunday, April 3, 2022

The bar has been raised

The save!!

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. 

  • Decision making. It was at about a 9 out of 10 last night. Examples? On the penalty kill, Turner McMillen has a puck deep in the corner. Being pressured, he calmly passes the puck to Jake Lee, who is situated three feet away. Lee, promptly, returns the pass to McMillen who fires the puck all the way down the ice. Small detail right? Like butter, it looks calm, composed, smart and was beautifully executed. Another example? Tyson Feist has the puck at the Rockets blueline. He wants to pass it cross-ice to his d-partner. He second guesses and alertly concludes if the pass is made it will be picked off and an offense chance will be created by the Royals. Instead, the veteran d-man skates up ice on right wing, making the wise play instead of the dangerous one. That was another example of how smart and dialed in the team was in last night's victory. 
  • Rookie Jari Kykkanen earned his first career WHL shutout. His best save, while wearing new pads and gloves, came when Royals forward Brayden Schuurman tried to go glove-side on a breakaway  (photo evidence above). Kykkanen made the stop - his best in his young career. It was the Rockets first home ice shutout of the season. The other two have come on the road in Vancouver and Prince George.  
  • The Rockets allowed a season low 15 shots on net last night. The previous low was 18. 
  • Andrew Cristall, like his team, was playing at his optimum level. Finding the back of the net for his 24th goal of the season, the 16 year-old is one goal shy of the franchise record for goals by a 16 year-old, which is 25, set twice by Nick Merkley and Shane McColgan. Cristall moved past Merkley for points as a 16 year-old. Cristall has 59, Merkley had 58 in year one. McColgan had 69 points as a rookie in 2009-2010. 
  • Jake Lee is back!! That's great news for the Rockets and not so good for the opponent. Goals in back-to-back games gives him 16 on the season. Lee is clearly the Rockets D-Man of the Year, edging out Captain Tyson Feist for that honour. The last d-man to score that many goals was Cal Foote, when he found the back of the net 19 times in 2017-2018.
  • Colton Dach has 19-multiple point games this season. With 25 goals and 6 more games to play, surely 30 is attainable. I'd be hungry for it. I'd hope he is too.  
  • Adam Kydd picks up an assist last night, but his best work was in his own end. His hustle and determination was impressive. I have him easily earning an overage spot with the team next season. And yes, his 11+16=27 in 33 games also doesn't hurt.  
  • Finally the Rockets gained some ground in the standings. Seattle doesn't slip often, but a one goal loss in Portland makes the race for 4th place in the Western Conference a smidge tighter. The T-Birds have a 6 point lead with the Rockets having two games in hand.  But we saw this song and dance against Kamloops. The Rockets had games in hand, but didn't take advantage of it. Do they drop the baton again?  They get a mulligan - using a golf term here. If you want to right a wrong, here is your chance!
  • The Rockets have points in 15 consecutive home games. The last regulation loss came to the Prince George Cougars (February 16th), who have handed the Rockets two of its 5 losses at home this season.
  • The Rockets have scored 5 or more goals 15 times this season on home ice. 
  • What's next? It's the Rockets last 'hotel stay' road trip of the regular season when they visit the Prince George Cougars in back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday. These are rescheduled games from January 11th and 12th when the Cougars were dealing with COVID.
  • Here's one for ya. The last time the Rockets played a game in April up in Prince George was 22 years ago. April 7, 2000 in an opening round playoff series. The crowd that night? Five thousand, 977. Rockets Assistant Coach Quintin Laing played in that game. His 15 year-old son, Hunter, is now a draft pick (2nd round - 33rd overall in 2021) of the Cougars and may play against the Rockets this week.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

March Madness

Colton Dach looking loose in pre-game warmup

  • Lots to unpack here. Where to start?  Let's go with the number 7. Did you know in both Eastern and Western cultures, the number seven is considered magical? Think about it. There are seven wonders of the world, seven continents, seven colours of the rainbow and seven days in the week. Heck, Snow White has seven dwarfs. Slot machines pay out good money for sevens don't they? So, was it any wonder the Kelowna Rockets, riding a season high seven game losing streak (0-5-0-2), were able to dig themselves out of a massive hole Saturday night with a 5-3 victory over the Kamloops Blazers. In the final meeting of the season, which featured 14 intense games, the Rockets were considered good candidates for another thorough beating. Heck, the Blazers had shut them out the night prior (6-0), and to make matters worse, sickness (non COVID related) was making it's rounds. Confidence was low. How could it not have been? Second guessing the system may have been in play, but home ice pride prevailed. In front of the biggest crowd (4,836) of the season, the Rockets were not about to let the Blazers celebrate the clinching of a BC Divisional title on the Prospera Place ice surface. Instead, a four goal second period prohibited that from happening in the teams 35th win of the season. 
  • The Rockets played this game with just four defencemen. Four! Jackson DeSousa dressed, but was ill and didn't see the ice surface. Rookie Caden Price couldn't play either, so John Babcock, Noah Dorey, Tyson Feist and Jake Lee had to log huge minutes. When you are playing your 6th game in 9 nights, that's an awfully big ask. That group was anything but flawless, but under the circumstances against a very good team, that 'Fantastic Four' were able to keep their heads above water.    
  • Pavel Novak's facial expression tells it all 
    Thankfully, seven game losing streaks are a rarity in these parts, so that's what made this slide so hard to accept. Plus, this was a terrible time to go into a free fall. You don't want to lose your mojo when the playoffs are essentially three weekends away. Here is my theory. The Rockets lost confidence when they ended up losing back-to-back shootout losses on home ice to the Blazers. Those were damaging - psychologically. Those were games they should have won, but ended up losing. Not only were they losses, it also saw the window of the teams aspirations of catching the Blazers for first place - end. All that rolled into one resulted in two losses in Victoria and a 6-0 loss Friday in Kamloops. In case you are wondering, the last time the team had this long of a losing skid was in the 2009-2010 campaign when it also took seven games before finally earning a 'W'.
  • Puck luck. The Rockets had very little of that during the seven game losing skid.That's why I want you to pay attention to Colton Dach's opening goal last night as a sign that some luck and persistence returned. Teammate John Babcock's shot from the point is blocked by Blazers defender Kaden Hammell. The puck goes off Hammell's skate right to Dach, who rips home his 22nd goal of the season.
  • Adam Kydd has the luxury of playing in the teams top six. He deserves that spot with
    soft hands and the ability to chase down loose pucks. With a goal and two assists, Kydd delivered in the clutch, and being in a top 6 role, you have too. He's 19. Pavel Novak is 19. You can't be bystanders. Kydd elevated as did Novak, who reached the back of the net for the first time in 8 games and scored his first career goal against the Blazers after 16 matches in his career where he was unable to find pay-dirt behind a Blazers goalie. 
  • Heading into the weekend doubleheader, Kamloops media, not all but some, where pushing the narrative that the Rockets were going to come into Friday's game wanting to stir the pot. The belief was there would be carryover/fireworks from a jawing match between Rockets head coach Kris Mallette and Blazers assistant Chris Murray the weekend prior. While it's the sexy narrative, with the media almost yearning for more antics, my sense going into the two games this weekend was the Rockets were more concerned about themselves, not settling any score with the opponent who had beaten them 5 straight times. In fact, I will go as far to suggest it would have been dangerous for the Rockets to even approach the games that way. What would it accomplish? More trips to the penalty box? Yep. More humiliation on the scoreboard? Hello! More losing? Bingo! More self doubt? Oh ya. Playing physical, hard nosed hockey and staying close to the script that has brought them success was the right route to take. It was the intelligent option. Even in the 6-0 loss Friday, I credit Mallette and the players for keeping composed and not going off the rails. In my opinion, that approach Friday paved the way for a win one night later.
  • What else? Oh, watch Pavel Novak's stick as he defends a one goal lead with the Blazers goaltender pulled for the extra attacker. Novak was paying extra attention to Logan Stankoven at the right faceoff circle and deflected a pass away from the skilled forward with time ticking down. You need to cheat to Stankoven's side of the ice in that situation. How can you not be aware of a player with 35+ goals - who has eaten you alive while spitting out bones with 7 goals in his last four games against you?  Stankoven has the most shots on goal of any player in the WHL! Teammates are going to try to get him the puck. Novak played it perfectly and his unselfish play in handing the puck off to Dach for the empty net hattrick goal was just another sign of why Novak is such a likable player and a quiet leader on this team. 
  • Face it, the Blazers will win the BC Division banner. That ship has sailed. One more win or a Rockets loss and it's a done deal. Realistically, the fact that the 2021-2022 edition of the Kelowna Rockets were even in the conversation is mind-blowing for me. Before the puck dropped, a 4th place finish in the BC Division was the likely destination with 28 to 30 wins. Kamloops was clearly better. So was Vancouver. Prince George was young, but heck, look at all that skill. They were easily a third place finisher. Victoria was expected to be in the basement, which now looking back, was one of only two predictions that actually came out right. The first one was the Blazers winning the BC Division with little to no trouble. 
  • If the Rockets can reach 40 wins - that would be an amazing regular season. 
  • The Rockets end the seasonal series with the Blazers going 8-4-0-2 in 14 games. Five of those losses came in a span of 28 days. So for argument sake, let's say the Rockets struggled for a month before finally bumping the slump. It wasn't fun seeing the team struggle, but it was rewarding to witnessing them beat a Blazers team that caused them so much angst.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Heated rivalry getting hotter

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. 

  • Much will be made about the yelling match between Rockets head coach Kris Mallette and Blazers assistant Chris Murray. After watching it again on video, was it really that big of a deal? We don't see it often, nor should we, but it's not like it doesn't happen in the heat of the battle. The two coaches never left the positions they were basically standing in all night long. Neither coach positioned himself closer to the glass that separates the two benches to give the other an extra ear full. Had one grabbed the glass and started shaking it like a maniac or jumped down from the bench and literally got his grill in the face of the other, well then we would have something to talk about. I've seen way more animation. Need proof?
  • The Blazers are good, but we knew that. We knew that Dylan Garand is very good. He proved that again this weekend. I'd suggest the 19 year-old was one of the main reasons why the Blazers skated away with two wins on the weekend. Heck, he was the third star in a 3-2 shootout win and then received second star honours in a 4-0 victory. I'd say he is the best Blazers goalie I've ever seen in my 22 years in the Western Conference with the best supporting cast in front of him. 
  • I thought Tayln Boyko had a really good weekend. The 19 year-old was real sharp Friday night when he allowed just one goal in the shootout. He also had to stop Logan Stankoven on a penalty shot Saturday night in an effort to give his team a chance. Goaltending with the Kelowna Rockets is not a problem. Goaltending is clearly a strength. 
  • The difference between winning and losing this weekend wasn't penalties. The Rockets took eight, but so did the Blazers. The difference maker was the power play. While the Blazers score one more goal with the man advantage (2 for 8 while the Rockets were 1 for 8 on the weekend), the Rockets also surrendered a shorthanded goal. While the Blazers power play didn’t manufacture many goals, it did provide momentum and territorial play. That counts for something even if it doesn’t help you on the score-sheet. I found the Rockets power play often struggled and wasn’t a constant threat, something the Blazers five man unit often was.
  • While the Rockets have lost the last five meetings between the two teams, take note that they’ve been more than a formidable foe against a team (Blazers) everyone expected to be elite this season. In fact, the Rockets have lost just three times in regulation in the 12 games played head-to-head. Three!! The Rockets have earned 16 points in the seasonal series while the Blazers have earned 11. Six of the games (50% of them) have been decided by one goal.
  • What’s next? After a steady diet at the Blazers buffet table, the Rockets get reacquainted with the Victoria Royals Tuesday and Wednesday against a team that may be dead last in the BC Division, but sit in one of the two final playoff spots in the Western Conference. While it looks like the Rockets are going down a weight class after taking on a heavy weight (Blazers) in four consecutive games, if they let down their guard even a smidgen, they will be leaving the Island riding the longest losing streak of the season and two weekend games against the Blazers in many respects will be inconsequential.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Rockets in good spot in final 5 weeks of season

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. 

  • A road game and a veteran needs to step up. Who is the Kelowna Rockets road warrior? Mark Liwiski is the answer. 'Lewy' was clutch, not once, but twice in Sunday's one goal win. Liwiski scores a shorthanded penalty shot goal, showing ice in his veins and then pots the game winner by showing off his spectacular speed by outracing Giants d-man Connor Hornung to a loose puck and beating the goaltender with a nifty backhand. Liwiski has 20 goals. Impressive considering it is the second most goals on the team. Only Pavel Novak (24) has more. What is more impressive is of the 20 goals Liwiski has scored this season, 13 have come on the road. 
  • Should we be surprised with Liwiski's ability to find the back of the net? Not really. He did lead the team in goals with 9 in 16 games during the abbreviated season. I'd argue that was against lesser competition. Not this season though. Liwiski got off to a slow start with three goals in his opening 16 games. In his last 20, the pain in the derriere forward has 11 goals. Not bad for a player who has also been suspended for four games this season. 
  • How fun would it be to have a race featuring Liwiski and rookies Marcus Pacheco and Rilen Kovacevic? All three are speed demons and are quick to pucks. In a straight line, that trio can scoot. It would be fun to do two races. One with the puck, the other without.  
  • Since the media started getting his name right, me included, Gabriel Szturc (Shhhh-stew-zzz) is on a roll. Riding a four game goal scoring streak, 'Gabby' has 7 goals in his last 13 games. Why the recent success? Shooting the puck more is one massive factor. Fifteen shots in his last four games will do that. 
  • Andrew Cristall may be playing in the shadows of a 16 year-old like Connor Bedard, but let's call him Kelowna's little secret. With 49 points in 42 games, the first round WHL bantam pick, taken 17 players after Bedard was chosen first overall, is having a spectacular season. A three point effort (1+2=3) against the G-Men pumps up his goal total to 19. His three point game was his 6th of the season. Nothing against Everett Silvertips forward Niko Huuhtanen, who leads the Western Conference in rookie scoring, but the Finnish born forward is 18. That two years difference is massive in junior hockey. With a 9 point lead on Cristall in the Western Conference rookie scoring race, Huuhtanen has also played four more games. Being nominated as the Western Conference rookie of the year is no small feat this season, considering three Seattle Thunderbirds are also making a strong bid for the honour. 
  • The last Rockets player to be named Western Conference rookie of the year was Nick Merkley in 2014. He won the award that season with 58 points. Shane McColgan was also named Western Conference rookie of the year in 2009-2010 by leading the team in scoring with 25 goals and 69 points. He would lose the league honour that season to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Red Deer Rebels.
  • One goal games. It's been common place this season. Sunday's win was the teams 25th this season. It is the most of any WHL team. Looking back, the 2019 edition of the Vancouver Giants played in 29-one goal regular season games in advancing to the WHL final, where they would lose a one goal game in overtime to the eventual league champion PA Raiders. When all the dust had settled, regular season and playoffs, the G-Men had played in 40-one goal games.
  • The Kelowna Rockets have been given the fewest power plays of anyone in the WHL. Crickets from everyone outside of Kelowna. But if the team has the most power play chances of any of the 22 teams, the conspiracy theorists come out in droves. The silence right now is deafening. 
  • Rilen Kovacevic is leading the WHL in fighting majors. I didn't see that coming. The rookie isn't picking his spots either. Of the 9 fighting majors, eight have come on opposition ice. Oh, he is just 17 people!
  • For those keeping count, the Rockets have 10 players with 30 or more points. No team has more. A few others equal that total including high powered Everett, Edmonton and Winnipeg. Next to join the 30 point club is Max Graham (29 points) and Jake Poole (28).
  • The Rockets earned a playoff spot on the weekend. If the 'real season' started today, it's the Seattle Thunderbirds in round one. First place in the BC Division is still within reach, but with time ticking down, Captain Obvious can tell you the division will be won or lost in the next four games. Why? The Rockets and Blazers meet in four consecutive games. The schedule maker....we applaud thee!!! 

Monday, February 28, 2022

Character personified

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.   

  • What's not to like about this win. Being down 2-0 and fighting back to equal the score was impressive. Andrew Cristall opens the scoring on a power play goal against the best penalty killing unit in the WHL. Colton Dach adds his 18th and a 2-0 hole turns into a 2-2 tie. Dach's goal also comes on a power play that couldn't even register a shot on goal in it's opening chance a night earlier in Kamloops. It was Cristall's first goal in seven games. Dach has 3 goals in his last four. Those two need to step up with an illness to power play specialist Pavel Novak. They did with the extra man and it was crucial in the come-back-bid. 
  • While timely scoring was huge in this game, it's the high panic threshold that continues to impress me about this group. Down 2-0, you could easily fold your cards and move away from the table. It doesn't seem to be an option with this group, instead staying in the fight. It's a belief in themselves. It is a belief in one another. It's a competitiveness that exists, where in past years, if things weren't going well for the skilled players, it was time to shut down the mill. The fight existed when things were going right, but true character is revealed when things are going wrong. You can turn on each other, or choose to play hard for each other. On a team that is void of an actually superstar, they win or lose as the result of a group effort. It must make the wins so rewarding. 
  • With Tayln Boyko starting back-to-back games against the Kamloops Blazers Friday and Saturday night, and playing very well thank you very much, it was time to sit on the bench and let rookie goalie Jari Kykkanen face his toughest competition in his young career. Kykkanen - pronounced Kick-a-nin - was solid in Sunday's T-Bird 40 shot barrage. With the goalie of the future on display, he handed the T-Birds next great hope (netminder Scott Ratzlaff) only his second loss in 14 games.    
  • Tyson Feist had a wonderful weekend. The 21 year-old team captain had two goals Friday night in a win against Kamloops. He then picked up another goal - his 12th - in a loss against the Blazers Saturday night. For good measure, he capped off the weekend with two assists in Sunday's victory. The d-core on this years team has 36 goals - combined. The last time we played a normal season was 2019-2020, with that group of defenders manufacturing just 30 goals through 63 games. Want another comparison of how the Rockets d-core is contributing on the scoresheet this season? The BC Division leading Kamloops Blazers have a combined 30 goals from the blue-line.  
  • When things go sideways, fans look directly at the head coach. He is easy to blame when the team underperforms. I saw it first hand this season when the team struggled in late November and a few followers suggested on Twitter than Kris Mallette was the reason why the team was starting slowly. Yep, it was a talking point. It blew me away at the very suggestion. Using the word 'struggle' is a joke in itself. The team had 2 wins (2-3-0-1) in six games and some within the fanbase were freaking out. I kid you not. Now with things going extremely well, let's give credit where credit is due. Kris Mallette has done an exceptional job. Reaching 30 wins in 46 games is mind blowing. It's extremely good for someone who is in his first full season as a head coach. I'd argue, Mallette should be considering a nominee for Western Conference coach of the year. He won't, nor does he likely care, but with the 'buy in' of his players, this team is one of the pleasant surprises in the Western Conference. It wasn't suppose to be this smooth. 
  • Will Mallette get the credit he deserves? He will from me, but he is under the umbrella of an organization where the bar is set extremely high. When a rookie coach leads his team to a WHL championship - thank you very much Dan Lambert - it's hard to get many accolades. But let's be realistic here. Mallette can't send Leon Draisaitl out on the ice. He can't put the d-pairing of Josh Morrissey and Madison Bowey out on the blueline. Hey, Nick Merkley, hey Rourke Chartier, get me a goal will ya? It isn't happening. That's what makes Mallette's exploits so impressive. Again, when things go well, the head coach is ignored. If the team struggles, the blame game typically centers around one person. It isn't fair, but sadly it's often true. 
  • The Rockets were 9 and 3 in 12 games in February. Just say'n. Not bad for a team that has played the entire month without 19 year-old forward Jake Poole who has missed 13 consecutive games. 
  • With 20 games left in the regular season, the schedule looks like this. Those 20 games will be played in 47 days. Of those 20 games, 10 are on home ice with 10 on the road. 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

What....a...weekend!

Pavel Novak - one of the best ever to wear Rockets colours

  • Call it a Kelowna Rockets rally. Or was it a Tri City Americans collapse? Can we all agree the entertainment value was extremely high following a 5-4 come-from-behind overtime win last night at Prospera Place? After an emotional win the night prior to the WHL point leading Everett Silvertips, the Rockets didn't come out flat, but they were clearly not at their best either. I'd argue the Americans deserved a better fate, but real good teams always find a way to win. The Rockets did just that. Conversely, teams that struggle often find ways to lose. The Americans crumbled in the third period when they looked in total control when leading 4-2. A power play goal from Pavel Novak makes it a one goal game. Head Coach Kris Mallette pulls the goaltender with 90 seconds remaining and rookie Andrew Cristall scores and it's 4-4. We go into overtime and you could sense the home team was going to rise from the ashes and win it. Yep, they did, with Cristall setting up Novak for his third goal of the game and the Rockets skated away with another overtime victory. That is now 4 overtime games on home ice. Each one has ended the same way - with the Rockets celebrating.
  • This is a game where the Rockets had to earn everything they got. They were down 3-1 after giving up a shorthanded goal six minutes into the third period. They made it a one goal game only to see Samuel Huo score his second goal and his 100th career point to make it 4-2. What we've seen from this group this season is resilience. I can look back to a game in Portland in late November when the Rockets trailed the Winterhawks 5-1. Game over right? Nope. Four consecutive goals tied the score before eventually losing it in a shootout. The belief to battle back clearly exists in that dressing room.
  • Jake Lee celebrating his 250th career WHL game last night had a two assist effort. Logging massive minutes and showing his offensive flair, the 20 year-old matched his career high with another 9 shot game. For my money, Lee has been the gem in the blockbuster trade the team made with the Seattle Thunderbirds in May, 2019 when they picked up Dillon Hamaliuk, Cole Schwebius and Lee. Hamaliuk was the prized possession at the time, but I'd suggest Lee has made a greater impact in his time in Kelowna. Lee has 74 points in 114 games with his new team. Hamaliuk had 44 points, in far fewer games played mind you, but you get the idea that the soft spoken d-man has had a far greater impact in a deal that saw a first round WHL bantam pick and Conner Bruggen-Cate go the other way. Lee is the teams best defenceman. He should pick up the honour at the teams awards banquet at the conclusion of the season. While that trade was precipitated to build for a strong appearance at the 2020 Memorial Cup that never materialized, that deal is still giving back three years after the fact. 
  • Andrew Cristall is a very impressive player. The skill set is above average. What kills you as a coach is often his ill advised cross ice passes or clearing attempts that are not executed with authority. Instead of getting ticked off at the parts of his game that need improvement and stapling his butt on the bench like coaches did in the 'good old days', Kris Mallette plays him, not punishes him in an effort to correct the mistakes. What happens? Cristall rewards the coach. He is in on all three crucial goals when the team needs offensive production to battle back in the game. How many 16 year-old's are put into that position late in a game? I hope Cristall realizes the long rope he has been given and the faith the Mallette shows by putting him on the ice when the chips are down. I think he does. He rewards the coach by setting up Novak's power play goal, scoring the tying marker and then feathering a pass to Novak for the game winner. If you think it's normal for a 16 year-old to be that instrumental in a come-from--behind win, let me be the first to tell you, it's not!!
  • The Rockets had to dig deep in this one after losing second leading point producer Colton Dach to a five minute major for a check to the head of Americans forward Sasha Mutala. Losing Dach was impactful. The 19 year-old is always a threat to score. He shoots the puck a ton and is good at the face-off circle. Others needed to step up and they did.
  • The ugly stat? The Americans have 1 regulation win in their last 20 visits to Prospera Place. That's a record of 1-16-1-2 over that stretch.  
  • In case you haven't noticed, Pavel Novak is closing in on 100 games played in the WHL. With 93 games under his belt, the 19 year-old has 110 career points. That puts him second all-time in points by a European forward in the Kelowna Rockets record books. Novak is only bettered by Vaclav Varada, who had 173 points in two seasons from 1994-96. Tomas Oravec had 87 career points over two seasons and sits third - all-time. Novak, even today, has to be considered as one of the best players from overseas to skate at Prospera Place.
  • Coming into this season, goaltending was considered a weakness with the 2021-2022 edition of the Kelowna Rockets. It had to be addressed with two overage goalies in Cole Schwebius and Roman Basran. It took some experimentation with Colby Knight and maybe a risky trade with 19 year-old Tayln Boyko, but it appears things have worked out wonderfully. Why was the Boyko deal risky? While drafted by the New York Rangers, Boyko was unproven as a starter. At the time of the trade, the Drumheller product saw sporadic duty behind the likes of Beck Warm. Being consistent with an increased workload isn't easy. Fortunately for the Rockets, Boyko has been brilliant and it now looks like a tremendous deal made by GM Bruce Hamilton. I'd trade a third rounder back to Tri City in a heartbeat considering how steady Boyko has been since his arrival. With Jari Kykkanen as his sidekick, that position hasn't looked this solid in a long, long time. Even when the backup is required to play, you don't have that feel in the pit of your stomach that disaster is close at hand. Kykkanen is no shrinking violet either.
  • Summing up the weekend in one word? Spectacular. The win against Everett was the biggest of the season without question. It just solidified the belief that the team can indeed play with the elite. While still not considered a top tier team by some, the Rockets have put together a 26 win season while sitting tied for 4th with the fewest goals allowed in the entire WHL. The last 18 games likely explains it all - 13-2-1-0. This team is for real.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

January blues? I don't think so!

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.

  • It has been amazing to watch this team galvanize together, where no one player is a star. They likely won't have a top 10 scorer on the roster this season. Pavel Novak just cracks the top 20. This may be the first team I've seen in my 25+ years of calling games for the Kelowna Rockets where 'strength in numbers' is personified. I'd suggest this team plays one of the best 'team games' I've witnessed. The data backs me up. The Rockets have 12 players with 20 or more points. 12! It is a diversified attack. By comparison, the Edmonton Oil Kings have 13 players with 20 or more points. The Winnipeg Ice have 12 players while Kamloops has 11. The WHL's best team - the Everett Silvertips - have 10 players. The Rockets are NEVER mentioned in the same conversation as those four teams because they don't play a sexy game. It's lunch bucket, but effective.
  • Again, it isn't one, two or three players doing the heavy lifting here. Pavel Novak has points in 9 of his last 11, but it goes far beyond the 19 year-old's exploits. Colton Dach has points in 9 of his last 10. Jake Lee has points in 11 of his last 13 games. Andrew Cristall is chipping in with points in 11 of his last 15. Mark Liwiski has points in 11 of his last 15 games too and has six goals in his last 9 games. The big surprise is the elevation in play of Jake Poole. The 19 year-old is riding a career high 7 game point streak and has goals in 7 of his last 10. He started the year with 4 goals in his opening 19 games and was basically a non-factor. Coach Kris Mallette made him a healthy scratch and since that point moving forward, Poole has made an impact. 
  • I'd like to share a story of how Mallette is pulling the right strings for a new coach with under 70 WHL games under his belt. I won't share it right now on this blog, but Mallette is making far more great moves in getting the most out his team than you might think. Some of them are gutsy or bold in my eyes, but I like the success he is seeing by making the ballsy call.
  • When did the team turn the corner from being a pretender to a contender? Was it the deal that saw the team solidify its goaltending with the acquisition of Tayln Boyko? Acquired November 7th from Tri City, the team is 16-7-1-2 under his watch. That's points in 19 of 26 games. Boyko is 15-5-0-2 as the teams #1 starter. Let's remember Boyko wasn't lights out terrific in his first few starts and even was pulled a few times by Mallette. The New York Rangers draft pick worked through the kinks in his game and is well on his way to earning a pro contract. 
  • Boyko better not argue about ice time. He has started 20 of the teams last 22 games.
  • Team chemistry is hard to create. Either you like each other or you don't. This group, in my small observations, really like one another off the ice. It's a big deal that no coach can create. Wanting to play for each other and celebrating the accomplishments of a teammate is very underrated. Watch the video from last night's game and the celebration when Jake Poole scores his third period goal. Everyone on the ice wearing Rockets colours are as happy as Poole that he found the back of the net. Tyson Baillie was such a good teammate that way. While a gifted scorer, his face would light up when a line-mate had success. I want more Tyson Baillie's. I think this team has more than a few.   
  • I can look back to Colton Dach's first game with the Rockets in Victoria on the first weekend of the regular season as the defining moment for me. I didn't know Dach, but I assumed he would come back to the WHL with a certain swagger after spending time with the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks. Again, this is only observation, but the 18 year-old quickly acclimated himself into the group. It looked seamless. It was right then and there that I thought to myself, this player and this group is going to have tremendous chemistry moving forward.
  • It was the Rockets 6th consecutive win last night. Sure, sure, four of those victories came against the Victoria Royals, but you still have to beat the teams that the schedule maker puts in front of you. That 6 game winning streak is the longest of the season and ties the mark set by the 2017-2018 team. The 2016-2017 edition of the Kelowna Rockets won 7 straight games.
  • The Rockets 22 wins this season, is the exact same number of victories as the non-playoff team in 2006-2007. Yikes, that was an awful season, but it paved the way to WHL championship success two seasons later. Again, you have to lose before you can win. 
  • The Rockets played back to back games against the Giants without second leading scorer Colton Dach, power play assist leader Nolan Flamand and captain Tyson Feist. Don't worry folks, all three are out with injuries and their absences are not the result of COVID. 
  • The Rockets have 21 wins against teams in the BC Division. That is impressive considering first place Kamloops also has 21 victories. 
  • What I like about this years team is the ability to score even strength. The team has found the back of the net 138 times, with only 27 goals coming on the power play. That means only 19.6 % of the goals scored are coming with the extra man. By comparison, Victoria has scored 114 goals with 36 of them coming with a opposition player in the penalty box. That means the Royals are scoring 32% of their goals with the man advantage.  
  • The Rockets are now 9-3-1-0 in the second game of back-to-backs.
  • The Rockets end off the month of January with a record of 7-1-1-0 in 9 games. Not bad considering three games were postponed and the team had to pause after a few cases of COVID-19. Some ask me if the team will catch Kamloops for first place in the BC Division in the final two and a half months of the regular season. If the mental approach remains a constant of - 'I know I can, I know I can, I know I can, it leaves no doubt in my mind that it's best not to bet against them.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Rockets a handful on home ice

Rookie Marcus Pacheco unloading one of his career high 6 shots on net 


Wrestling fans would call it an old fashioned beat down.

The old timers would categorize it as taking the opposition to the woodshed.

The mathematicians in the crowd would use these numbers: 15-5.

Whichever way you want to slice it, the Kelowna Rockets showed little mercy Saturday night in a 9-1 dismantling of the Victoria Royals. Out-scoring them 15-5 in back-to-back games, the nine goal outburst saw Jake Poole put up 5 points (1+4=5) while Pavel Novak and Adam Kydd scored twice in the lopsided win. The accelerator was applied early in this one with the home team building up a five goal first period lead. Unlike the previous night where the Royals scored three of its four goals on the power play in a 6-4 loss, it appeared the visitors just ran out of gas in this one and not even its power play could keep them close. Dealing with injury and players in COVID protocol, the Rockets took full advantage. Before we feel sorry for the opponent, let's remember the home team was playing without its best d-man (Jake Lee), it's fifth leading scorer (Nolan Flamand) and arguably it's best forechecker (Mark Liwiski). Lee was ill. Flamand is hurt and Liwiski was serving game two of a two game suspension. To suggest the Rockets were at full strength and the Royals were not would be inaccurate. 

  • Up until last night, the Rockets highest goal total was 7. They beat Vancouver 7-6 in overtime and earned a 7-4 win against Kamloops prior to the Christmas break. The team hasn't scored 9 goals since January 2017 when they beat the Royals 9-2. That season they put up 10 goals in one game in a 10-1 victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings.
  • Do the Rockets have scoring depth? Well, the team has 8 players with 20 or more points. Tyson Feist and Gabriel Szturc are one point shy of joining that group. By comparison, the Royals have just three. First place Kamloops has 9 players with 20 or more points.
  • He may be the quietest player on the team. Heck, he sits behind me in the bus so I should know. It is likely the reason why I really like Marcus Pacheco. As a shy, quiet teenager myself, I can relate. I was so pleased to see him score his first career goal last night. 'Patches' as he is known by his teammates, the 16 year-old is such an elite skater, but his lack of finding the back of the net had to be weighing heavily on him. I loved the fact that head coach Kris Mallette wasn't going to take him off the power play in an effort to get that elusive - first one! I also enjoyed the celebration from his teammates when they rallied around him when he found pay dirt. It is one of those regular season 'memorable moments' for me. I can only image how the 16 year-old felt with the monkey off his shoulders. 
  • Small observation. Is goaltender Talyn Boyko tracking the puck better? In my opinion he is. In dealing with traffic, he is able to make saves and look around opposing forwards more proficiently. Maybe goaltending coach Eli Wilson gets credit here. The extra work has paid off. 
  • Boyko has one loss in his last 9 starts. The 19 year-old has started a career high 10 straight. 
  • He can't complain. Boyko has started 17 of the last 18 games. He leads the league in saves and is second in minutes played. 
  • Tyson Feist had a nice weekend. Physical and setting the tone early. No less than six big hits were applied at his own blue line. Word to the wise. Keep your head up!!
  • Do I dare say the Rockets have once again re-established themselves on home ice? Remember when opposition teams had little hope when entering Prospera Place that they would exit with two points? The Rockets used to be one of the best home ice teams in the league. They lost that certain something when they went 14-15-4-1 in 2018-2019. It felt odd to see the team be so ordinary on home ice. It appears now, with 13 home ice victories, the mojo is back. The 13 wins ties them with Everett for the Western Conference lead. 
  • With much uncertaintly in this COVID world, the plan is for the team to begin a stretch of five straight games on the road. It starts Friday night in Everett followed by a stop in Vancouver Saturday. Then it's off Victoria for two games before another stop against the Giants on January 28th. That is 5 games in 8 nights for those counting.   
  • I did some digging. Royals forward Bailey Peach has 21 goals in 32 games. He is currently on the exact same pace as Matthew Phillips, who scored 50 goals with Victoria in 2016-2017. That season, Phillips had 50+40=90 points. 


Sunday, January 9, 2022

"We are taking every day as a blessing"


"We are taking every day as a blessing that we can play and hopefully that continues."

Those words from Kelowna Rockets head coach Kris Mallette after it was learned three of his teams games have been postponed due to cases of COVID-19.

Friday's home games was postponed against the Vancouver Giants while this Tuesday and Wednesday's road games in Prince George have also been put on hold.

In both cases, the Giants and Cougars had an abundance of positive cases and couldn't ice a team. 


"It is still around (Omicron). It has been a long time since it has been around. It's unfortunate. I have my booster set for Monday, so I am doing all I can and I know other people are doing the same thing. I just hope we can get through this," Mallette added.

The Rockets have had a few cases of COVID, but not enough to force a complete shutdown. The Rockets are one of the lucky ones. Fifteen other teams across the WHL, and one point, have been put on pause due to the pandemic.

"Isn't it ironic? We were the only team to get it last year in the bubble. You don't want to say not if, but when. I don't want to be a pessimist but studies show that once it gets into a team environment that it goes through you real quick. Hopefully if we do have that amongst our group, it is nothing serious and all of us get through it."

The WHL has said all along, all postponed games will eventually be played. Some are suggesting the season may have to be extended beyond April 3rd for that to happen.