leon draisaitl

Rockets Fall Short On Dream Season; Still Kelowna’s Heroes

My heart sank in sadness when the puck went in to crown the Oshawa Generals 2015 Memorial Cup Champions. I’ve felt this hurt before when the Vancouver Canucks fell to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup. That pain is never easy to swallow and we all play those hilites back in our heads over and over. This year’s Rockets team was different though, they weren’t supposed to lose. 

It wasn’t being cocky or arrogance, these guys were genuinely likeable and Canada fell in love with our Ogopogo crew. Losing in OT in the final game of the tournament is about as painful as it gets but a day later they could have won it all by the reception the locals gave them. Champions? No. Heroes? You bet!

Credit – infonnews.ca

A season that didn’t match their statistical efforts from a year prior, 53 -13-5-1 in 2015 compared to 57-11-0-4 in 2014, it made up in excitement, confidence and a handful of trades that took the WHL by storm. Owner and GM Bruce Hamilton pulled the trigger on some of the biggest moves the team has ever made and you know what, I say they paid off.

Hamilton isn’t known for parting with high picks or depth home grown talent but this season was different. RIght before Christmas he unloaded a deal that brough stud defenseman Josh Morrissey (backup goaltender Jake’s brother) home from Prince Albert.

A deal that shook the junior hockey world and got people wondering how far Kelowna would go to win it all in 2015. Well, they weren’t done. The Edmonton Oilers sent Leon Draisaitl (NHL 3rd overall pick in 2014) back to junior after 37 games and again, a trade was made to bring the star centre to the beautiful Okanagan from Prince Albert.

How many stars were buried in PA?

The Memorial Cup saw everything these newbies had to offer and Leon Draisaitl in defeat, won the tournament MVP with 4 goals and 3 assists. He was our J.S. Giguere. We were all sad too Leon. Had the Rockets won, there is a chance the winning goal might have been future NHL star Nick Merkley’s if the puck didn’t hop off his stick on a late game breakaway.

It would have been enough to have the additions of Morrissey and Draisaitl but in that deal the Rockets also received underrated winger Gage Quinney. Stealing is the wrong word here, Hamilton made out like a bandit. Oh but Brucey wasn’t done there. 

With room for one more 20 year old after sending away over-ager Carter Rigby at the beginning of the year, Hamilton looked north to Prince George and landed veteran gritty forward Chance Braid. He hits, he fights and believe it or not, he scores too!

Quinney and Braid took it to another level in Quebec and I think even for Rockets fans they realized Gage Quinney might be the teams next star. He was slightly overshadowed in coverage by Draisaitl, Merkley and Chartier which was fine by him.

Quinney’s four goals and an assist were right behind the big German and occasional linemate Merkley. The big games came and Gage stepped up. Next season is going to be bright for him. Merkley and Quinney could do a lot more damage when they play full time together.

Kelowna took a bit to jel all their new additions but things were still going as planned. WIns came easy and when the challenges came, they passed with flying colors. The fans started to notice, they started to get excited.

The playoffs for the Rockets basically started in the second round after sweeeping the Tri City Americans quicker than it takes to change the channel when Caillou comes on (Im a dad, if you know…you know). Victoria’s Royals put up a bit of a challenge but again, Kelowna only needed 5 games and some anger after losing one they shouldn’t have.

If you follow the Rockets closely, you know the Portland Winter Hawks have been Kelowna’s kryptonite. Facing the Hawks 3 of the last 4 years, it was going to be THE test everyone was waiting for. Back and forth both teams went but it wasn’t until game 4 that Kelowna made their statement (VIDEO). Kelowna never looked back.

Going into the WHL Final, the stars came alive. Josh Morrissey, Nick Merkley, Leon Draisaitl and Gage Quinney all had their way with the Brandon Wheat Kings and what looked like a 6 or 7 game series quickly turned into an unlikely sweep by the Rockets.

Could they be that good?

Aside from a few hiccups, the Rockets were as advertised even though they finished the round robin 1-2 at the Memorial Cup. Scoring 7 goals against the Rimouski Oceanic put them in the semi final and embarrassing the Quebec Ramparts in that game 9-3 had all but assured Kelowna the title.

Oshawa ended up with the OT winner to become the 2015 Champs but in all the Kelowna’s fans eyes, their team had reminded the rest of Canada they were for real. It could have gone either way but no one in Kelowna is blaming anyone. 

This team brought a city together even if only for a few months and it may take awhile before Kelowna gets back to the big dance but we won’t forget. These were our heroes.

The Rockets marketing team came up with the slogan and hashtag #thismomentweownit for this season, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone that says they didn’t.

Its all done for another year but something tells me Canada will want to see more next season. At the very least, this little girl sure does:

Thanks Merks!  Next stop – the NHL Draft.

Follow me on twitter: @always90four

Rockets Too Much For Ramparts; Generals Await

Safe to say the province of Quebec are not Rockets fans after this week. Kelowna amassed 16 goals combined against the Rimouski Oceanic and Quebec Ramparts in just over 3 days. Everything seems to have gone right for the Rockets and their final test comes Sunday.

One more game. One more team.

The Kelowna Rockets needed a big game out of their stars and it was the supporting cast that did most of the damage on Friday night. The media and fans alike no doubt would have expected Nick Merkley, Leon Draisaitl and Gage Quinney to be the ones leading the attack, would Chance Braid and Justin Kirkland do?

Braid and Rodney Southam both got an opportunity to drop the mitts against Ramparts Yanick Turcotte and it only seemed to fire up the Rockets, to the tune of 9-3. Sure the big guns had a good game but it was the secondary scoring that did Quebec in.

Justin Kirkland seems to be fine after coming back from injury. He picked a great game to get back in the groove. With 2G and 2A and a +3, what a way to stun the Quebec crowd! He wasn’t the only one. Chance Braid added to his big fight by completing the Gordie Howe Hat Trick with a goal and an assist.

Up and down the lineup, the Rockets were having statement games. Even though Rourke Chartier was the team’s leading scorer, he has been under the weather and hasn’t produced at his normal clip. I guess all he needed was a big game to get his scoring touch back.

2 goals and a +4 got Chartier right back to where he needed to be. The German sniper Leon Draisaitl made quick work of Zach Fucale putting up a pedestrian 1G and 2A. He continues to amaze and now, he doesn’t even celebrate his goals.

We could keep talking about all the guys that got points for Kelowna but how about the ones that kept the puck out? Cole Martin is beyond underrated. He played the ultimate shutdown role against Quebec stealing pucks and driving guys to the outside.

Martin gets praise at home but on such a big stage like the Memorial Cup, he has elevated his game to the point the scouts should be taking notice. He isn’t flashy and isn’t one for the stats but if you need someone to breakup a huge play, odds are Martin is there.

Can’t forget to mention Jackson Whistle who allowed only 3 goals. In a format like the Memorial Cup, every team is good enough to score a boatload of goals. He never allowed more than 3 goals in a game and in the losses he suffered he was far from the reason they fell.

Whistle has been able to surpass his predecessor Jordan Cooke with less than stellar numbers, but the big numbers that mattered were the W’s he produced. The goal scoring in front of him sure helps keep a calm hand when opponents are bearing down on his net.

So now the Rockets get to play the Generals for the Memorial Cup. Two teams that are equal in almost every way. If you read my post from just over a week ago you know I’m not shocked to see them both here.

The two best teams are right where they should be and the way the Rockets are playing, the loss they suffered the first time they played Oshawa will serve as a good reminder of what they’ll have to do to win. Scoring 9 times in the semi final is a pretty good sign they’re ready.

Sunday can’t come soon enough.

Follow me on twitter for more hot takes: @always90four

Kelowna Rockets Need Calm, Not Calamity To Advance

It might only be one loss, but the Kelowna Rockets can’t afford to lose again. In their opening matchup Friday against the host Quebec Ramparts, the Rockets were downed 4-3 in what ended up being a nailbiter. Kelowna looked reactive and uncomfortable until late in the game; that will need to be remedied immediately for the Okanagan crew to move on.

The Mastercard Memorial Cup tournament is a quick gauntlet of the best teams in the CHL and when you only play each team once (1 vs. OHL Champions, 1 vs. QMJHL Champions and host team) every loss can be devastating and at the same time each win monumental.

The Rockets once again started the first period with a goal against and nerves seemed to be a big factor. As good as they are, there aren’t very many chances to bounce back in a week long tourny. Goaltender Jackson Whistle had another on again off again outing but still maintained his all star play for a good chunk of the game.

Whistle wasn’t the main reason for the loss though, failure to keep a consistent pace with Quebec and lack of discipline had Kelowna in the box too often and the individual efforts overshadowed what they did well as a team.

Coach Dan Lambert has iced a team that much of the season has shown composure and because of this they tend to overpower teams with their four line attack. Forwards Nick Merkley and Leon Draisaitl can control shifts and even periods with their eye for how a play will develop. Having a cool head translates into goals for these guys.

Cole Linaker showed his patience on the penalty kill last game when he read the Rampart defenders and found an open Nick Merkley in the slot to get back into the game. Its unlikely nerves will play a factor in Monday’s game against the Rimouski Oceanic. There isn’t time anymore.

Its no secret that the line of Draisaitl, Merkley and Rourke Chartier will be the force that decides how far this team goes. When they’re on, they’re lethal. Tyson Baillie will need to provide some clutch minutes as well with Dillon Dube and Gage Quinney.

Kelowna has the firepower to get the job done in Quebec and if they get back to their team assault, the rest of Canada will see why they are so good. 

Capitalizing on thoughtless penalties will help the Rockets even things out a bit more. World Junior Gold Medallists defensemen Madison Bowey and Josh Morrissey will also be on high alert. These guys will make the difference when just one more shot or one more battle to hold the line is crucial.

The Rockets made quick work of the WHL in this year’s post season because they didn’t panic when they were up against a challenge, they adapted and prevailed. This will be no different.

Progress. Not perfection.
Follow me on twitter: @always90four

Photo credit: torontosun.com

Kelowna Rockets, Oshawa Generals: Destined For Memorial Cup Final

The Kelowna Rockets dressing room still reeks of victory (and just plain stench) after beating the Brandon Wheat Kings four straight to clinch the WHL Championship. Dan Lambert’s boys looked like they almost cruised through most of the playoffs without much of a sweat.

Knocking off Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters in five games gave the Oshawa Generals a similar berth into the Memorial Cup tournament. These two teams are very similar and on Championship Sunday they’ll likely battle for junior hockey’s top prize.

Kelowna played all of 19 games this post season and faced adversity arguably only twice against the Portland Winterhawks. Once the Rockets took charge they never let up and put the Hawks away with ease. The Brandon Wheat Kings looked like they would challenge Kelowna but by the time they did, it was too late.

When the OHL playoffs started, many believed it would be the Erie Otters representing their league in Quebec City. Connor McDavid alone made quick work of his opponents, scoring effortlessly and often. But once they ran into the Oshawa Generals, their luck changed.

The Generals hit everything that moved. Cole Cassels (2013 Canucks 3rd rounder) didn’t completely contain McDavid but his overall game could not be matched. Oshawa in a lot of ways is the eastern version of the Kelowna Rockets.

Up front, the Rockets can score at will with their top two lines of Rourke Chartier/Leon Draisaitl/Nick Merkley and Tyson Baillie/Dillon Dube/Gage Quinney. in 19 games those 6 players combined for 49 of the Rockets 81 goals. They proved to be too much for three rounds and against Brandon they perfected their craft.

Oshawa liked the sound of the goal horn themselves. 78 goals in 21 games while only playing in 6 games with 2 goals or less. Pretty impressive. Cole Cassels and Matt Mistele combined for 23 goals and 12 power play markers, three others had 8 goals or more. The Generals were presented with opportunities and capitalized frequently.

Puck possession will be key in this tournament so look for the Draisaitl line to see a lot of Cassels. Even though both of these teams score in bunches, they way they control the play will keep the score quite low most likely. Of course, if I’m wrong that wouldn’t be the worst thing.

When it comes to goaltending its a deadlock. Jackson Whistle of the Rockets has proven he is indeed their #1 but has shown he is human as well. Whistle was the difference against Portland and benefited from some puck luck along the way as well.

He was guilty of giving up the first goal numerous times but hunkered down and slammed the door shut right after. If backup Michael Herringer is needed, he’s equally stingy and coach Lambert won’t hesitate if things get dicey.

Out east, Ken Appelby backstopped the Generals all the way. Posting 2 shutouts and a healthy .922 SA %, he even had time for a few game breaking saves against a certain future Edmonton Oiler. Highly debateable if the tenders are the main story; I have a feeling they won’t be.

Sure, there are 2 other teams in this tourny but Rimouski and Quebec will have beaten each other senseless by then and have rotated goalies on the regular. The Rockets and Generals have the early edge especially with a week of rest to recharge.

Having watched Kelowna develop the last three years into what they are now, its tough to bet against them. They aren’t just defense anymore. What Oshawa brings to the table is the equal compete level and ability to matchup almost line for line.

I’m playing my homer card and picking the Rockets to win it all but they’ve been here a few times looking like the favourite and come up short. 

Thankfully we will be watching these guys play for a second time if it gets that far and by then we’ll know who truly should be crowned the 2015 Mastercard Memorial Cup Champions.

I just want the cool hat.

Follow me on twitter: @always90four

Kelowna Rockets Gamble About To Pay Off

The Kelowna Rockets can advance to the Mastercard Memorial Cup with a win against the Brandon Wheat Kings on Wednesday night. The two top teams in the Dub found each other at the end of a pretty straightforward playoff run.

Kelowna gambled big after coming up short last year and essentially bet the farm to make the Memorial Cup this year. Bruce Hamilton, Rockets Owner/GM, made some shrewd moves and those moves are about to pay out large dividends for the franchise.

With surging forwards Rourke Chartier, Nick Merkley and Tyson Baillie already in the fold, the Rockets still needed that final piece up front that would take them over the top. When the Edmonton Oilers sent Leon Draisaitl back to junior, there was some talk it was on the basis he would go to a contender so he could mature his game a bit more.

The Rockets were the lucky recipients of his talents, but not before making an equally important trade with the same Prince Albert Raiders that Draisaitl played for prior to his NHL debut; local boy Josh Morrissey was dealt to Kelowna from PA to give the Rockets another star on the blue line.

After the World Junior Championships, which Madison Bowey and Morrissey both came home with gold, they began their assault on the WHL. It took some time to mesh and along with the eventual Leon Draisaitl came Gage Quinney, which many thought was a throw in. Quinney has been as important as Draisaitl and Morrissey and has given the Rockets yet another talent to flaunt game after game.

When Draisaitl came back to the WHL, Kelowna did what they haven’t done in 24 years: they dealt their 2015 1st round pick and two other picks in the 4th round to Prince Albert along with Kris Schmidli and Dalton Yorke.
If you lived in Kelowna when that happened it was a head turner. Bruce Hamilton is all about building from within but with a realistic chance to go all the way, he put his money where his mouth is. What resulted was next to perfection really.

In addition to their team success, the new look Rockets have pretty much run the table in the playoffs and racked up the personal stats for its stars both regular season and playoffs. 2014 WHL Rookie of the Year Nick Merkley has adjusted his game this year and has become more of a playmaker.

20 goals and a whopping 70 assists, not to mention a +29 has made Merkley a dual threat when he’s on the ice. His 4 goals and 22 assists in this year’s playoffs are further proof of this. Sadly, my dream of Merks getting drafted in this year’s NHL Entry Draft by the Canucks fades every game he plays; he won’t be there when they pick.

Merkley’s linemate and centre, Rourke Chartier is no slouch either. Even with an injury in both the regular season and playoffs, Chartier has blasted the stat sheet. 48 goals, 34 assists in the regular season and 12 goals, plus a huge 6 assists in the playoffs only authenticize why Kelowna has been dangerous all year.

Now, I could stop there and that would be enough.

The final nail in the coffin for the rest of the WHL was future NHL superstar Leon Draisaitl. It didn’t take more than a period for Leon to show off his stuff when he arrived in the Okanagan. That was all we needed to see.

Draisaitl found early success with clutch perfromer Tyson Baillie and only recently was added to the line of Chartier and Merkley. Before Game 4 of the WHL Championship, Leon had 9 goals and 17 helpers in 18 games. His presence is scary good and he takes over every shift.

Even though coach Dan Lambert loaded up his top line with those three, he has solid depth up and down the roster to get results early and often, Gage Quinney and Dillon Dube to name a few. A sound defense with Bowey, Morrissey, Cole Martin and Joe Gatenby keeps the puck away from the Rockets net and closer to their opponents.

The Kelowna Rockets haven’t played very many games to get to this possible Mem Cup berth and no one is really surprised. A first round sweep of the Tri City Americans, 5 games to beat the Victoria Royals, 6 to FINALLY beat the Portland Winterhawks and the 3 games they have owned Brandon.

Its tough to say if the Rockets have truly been tested thus far but they haven’t shown any signs of slowing down. 

Bruce Hamilton has been the architect of many great teams over the years with many NHL stars now in its alumnus; but this year’s team might be his best yet. Never looked like a gambler to me, just a smart man with a great scout.

One win left til poutine, Quebec City here we come! Also, did you NOTICE the beef jerky ad at the top? Man I love beef jerky.

#thismomentweownit GO ROCKETS GO!

Follow me on twitter: @always90four

Main photo credit – infotel.ca