whl playoffs

Rockets Looking For Seventh Heaven Against Thunderbirds

Before this series started, many would have seen the Kelowna Rockets and Seattle Thunderbirds extending the matchup to seven games. Well, it’s Game Six so Kelowna will need to put some pucks in the net if they want to book another bus trip to Kent, Washington on Tuesday. Seattle took Game Five in somewhat convincing fashion after the Rockets couldn’t capitalize on their own power play chances and let the T-Birds execute on theirs.

Expect more of the same tonight.

The series has been pretty even with both teams splitting games in each city but it was the Thunderbirds that took the extra home game back on Friday to put their team ahead 3 games to 2. The power play has been hot for Seattle this post-season and they currently hold the top-ranked unit by a whopping 4.2% over the next closest, now eliminated Red Deer Rebels, at 37.5%.

The Rockets are trailing in that category by about 10% and in the playoffs, that’s huge. Sticking with special teams, Kelowna leads the WHL playoffs with 216 PIM and if they continue that trend this evening, it will be hard for Jason Smith’s team to force a seventh game.

Mid-season addition, Carson Twarysnki, hasn’t scored since April 12 when he had one of Kelowna’s seven goals against the Portland Winterhawks. With Seattle bringing a physical game each and every night, T-Dub will need to get back to the dirty areas and power his way to a few chances. Twarynski was great in the first two rounds but has been quiet in the Western Final. Kelowna will need his contributions if they are going to advance.

Nick Merkley has been a light show in his last 11 games putting points up in 10 of them. His stat line is a dream with 6 goals and 11 assists in that time. Merkley is the Rocket’s all-time leader in playoff production and when he’s on his game, he’s the catalyst on the team. Suffering a freak ACL tear last year, Nick has rebounded well and has brought renewed hope to both his current WHL team and the Arizona Coyotes who drafted him 30th overall in 2015.

Providing Kelowna can stay out of the box and play a disciplined game, they should be able to stay ahead of the red-hot Thunderbird squad. Kelowna has averaged 35 shots against Seattle this series so the opportunity is there to strike. Keegan Kolesar, Ryan Gropp, and Alexander True all have three goals against Kelowna so keeping them in check will no doubt be on the gameplan.

Don’t expect a blowout this evening but considering this series has been played down a man on either side, someone is due to open it up. Let’s all hope the Rockets send their fans home awaiting the AM1150 call on Tuesday night.

photo – kelownacapnews.com

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Rockets Need To Spell Jekyll and Hyde To Clinch Series

If anyone actually thought the first round for the Kelowna Rockets was going to be a cake walk, they have a serious case of amnesia. The Blazers bested the Rockets 6-4 in the regular season but as it came to a close, the Rockets reminded Kamloops who has been in charge the last two seasons. Game 6 will be a tight-knit affair and ultimately, the first goal may just decide who is victorious.

Kelowna set the tone in Game 1 and 2 but the Blazers brought the fight back in Game 3 and 5. We haven’t seen a flurry of goals but the first one seems to be really important. Jason Smith’s club has been Jekyll and Hyde so far in the first round and it would be wise to bring the Game 1 sticks with them on the trip to Kamloops this evening.

The trip to Kamloops for Game 3 put Kelowna at a disadvantage when the Blazers opened up their own scoring clinic with 4 goals of their own. Kelowna will need big games from their stars which may be easier said than done.

2017 Draft hopeful, Kole Lind, has one goal in the series after leading the Rockets in regular season scoring. Veteran forward Nick Merkley has been quiet on the scoresheet as well with a lone assist to his name. The beast Calvin Thurkauf has a few assists but even though he has tried to break out, the Blazers have kept him in check and it’s a big reason the Rockets didn’t run away with the series.

The City of Rockets has put up a ton of points this season but the population has dwindled as the series has drawn on. Captain Rodney Southam needs to spark his team tonight and help set the tone for what will be no doubt, a stingy game.

Thankfully, of all the players on the Rockets, goalie Michael Herringer has done his job and then some. Through 5 games, Herringer has 2 shutouts and has posted a .931 save percentage. It’s been nutty in the Kelowna end of the rink but he’s been Joe Cool. I’m sure Herringer is happy his teammates have done their best to create scoring chances by peppering Blazers’ goalie Connor Ingram with a whopping 205 shots!

Whatever Kelowna did in their three wins so far needs to be replicated and drowned in energy drinks if they want to emerge victorious tonight. Tomas Soustal has looked great to start the series but his efforts will need to be visible as Kamloops isn’t giving up without a fight. He had a great charge in Game 1 and Blazers’ forward Jermaine Loewen has taken over as the visible force after that.

Both of these teams realize how important this series is and the long rivalry between Kelowna and Kamloops has once again been amped up. Don’t turn away after the opening puck drop because you’ll be sure to miss a big play that everyone will be talking about tomorrow.

Bruce Hamilton brought in veterans Carsen Twarynski and Reid Gardiner to put Kelowna over the edge once again and they have done their part so far, it’s the familiar names that need to step their game up and capitalize on the numerous chances they’ve had and take the goal mouth scrambles and turn them into leads on the scoreboard.

For Dr. Jekyll, err… the Rockets to finish off the series, the power play must be the difference maker. Both teams have been awful at converting with 15.8 and 3.6% for Kelowna and Kamloops, respectively. The setup has been perfect but they’ll have to find Ingram’s weakness because he’s seeing everything.

It’s the Rockets and Blazers for hopefully the final time this season.

Follow me on twitter: @always90four

photo – Marissa Baecker

 

Resilient Rockets Stun Royals In Game 7 Thriller

As the hashtag goes, #itwas2tozero. Game 7 in Victoria’s barn was going to be hard enough but going down 2 buzz in the first? The Royals were too good to let this one slip away. That’s the beauty of playoff hockey, anything is possible. No matter how you enjoyed this one whether on WHL on Shaw or the electric play by play of Regan Bartel on AM 1150, it was a thriller right down to the last 0.2 seconds of regulation.

Oh, and then there was overtime.

 

Kelowna wasn’t as charged as they should have been in this game and aside from some luck and a few saves by Michael Herringer, the Rockets could have easily blown this one.

Justin Kirkland added yet another playoff tally to his resume, it wasn’t pretty but it put the Rockets back in the game early in the third period, cutting the Royals lead to 1. Kelowna pushed back in the third period and had a few opportunities to pull even. A Ryan Gagnon delay of game penalty about 4 minutes into the final frame could have put Kelowna dead even but they just couldn’t capitalize.

It was a nailbiter right to the end and when coach Brad Ralph pulled Michael Herringer with just over 2 minutes left in the game, the stress level went to Defcon 5. The Rockets just couldn’t get anything together and Victoria was able to get the puck and take a long shot at the open Kelowna net from the Victoria end.

Off the outside of the post……icing.

The Rockets and Royals held the puck in Victoria’s end boards for almost 30 seconds and if it DID stay there that long, the game would have ended and the Royals would have advanced.

The puck managed to squirt out and was fed to rookie defenseman Cal Foote who fed Justin Kirkland. With 0.2 seconds left in the game, this happened:

Anyone with a pulse was in utter shock; amazement if you’re a Kelowna fan and dumbfounded if you happen to cheer for the Royals. Overtime was back and forth but it was the Rockets who held the play.

Maybe getting a buzzer beater is good for morale? I’m guessing yes.

Kelowna was riding high and a few hiccups by the Royals in their own zone led to the eventual series deciding goal:

Even though there is not ONE Canadian NHL team in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year, the WHL is more than making up for that. The Rockets will face the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL Western Conference Final starting Friday and Saturday in Kelowna. I have a feeling this series will be just as intense as the last one.

That’s Rockets hockey I guess?

Photo – Marlon Martens

Rockets Game For A 7th Showdown

You saw Game 6 and even if you didn’t, the Kelowna Rockets would prefer you not see it. Penalty troubles plagued the Kelowna crew and a less than attentive start in the first period had the Rockets playing catchup all game. Heading back to Victoria for the illustrious GAME 7 is all the motivation the Rockets need.

Get the job done and move on to Seattle.

The Rockets have done quite well in the conference semis this year with every game being a tight knit one. Neither team is giving up much so the errors are front and centre when they happen. Stellar goaltending on both ends has forced everyone to bury their chances because there won’t be many opportunities to take a lead.

Kelowna is 2-2 in Game 7’s going ALLLLL the way back to 2008. They don’t play very many of them but have seen a number of Game 6’s though. As you no doubt have heard, if Jack Walker scores for Victoria in this series, the Royals have won. Not a fun stat but he’s pretty good. It wouldn’t surprise me if he did indeed score but the Rockets have plenty of fight left and can put this away just as much as the Royals.

Here are your KEYS TO THE GAME:

  • STAY OUT OF THE PENALTY BOX!!! The Rockets have been shorthanded the MOST of any team in the WHL this post season, 60 times if you really wanna know. No doubt Brad Ralph has preached discipline but I mean, at this point, you just hope they outscore their problems. Maybe change it up and think about drawing penalties instead of taking them. On that same note, Victoria is finding it tough to score as Kelowna’s 85% PK is impressive.
  • Lack of Power…play – The Royals have a 17% PP success rate which isn’t all that high but Kelowna isn’t really any better at 14.6%. Whoever wins this battle, probably wins the game and thus, the series.
  • Rourke is off the Charts! – Rourke Chartier and Tomas Soustal lead the Rockets with 11 points; each with 5 goals and 6 assists. Charts has been an integral part of the Rockets success the last two seasons and without star Nick Merkley this time, he’s upped his game as have others and they’ve enjoyed energy bursts that usually result in scoring chances and more than not, goals.
  • Another brick in the wall – Michael Herringer just doesn’t quit. He’s bit early on a few goals this series but other than that, nobody can beat this guy. He’s so cool in the net, he just doesn’t panic under any circumstance. His 2.38 GAA is tops among active goalies in the playoffs, his two shutouts, ditto. Herry’s .928 SA% is no slouch either and we shouldn’t be surprised. Herringer has been the Rockets MVP this playoff run because without him, they probably don’t even get passed Kamloops. Another big game should be in the cards for him.
  • Win Game 7 – we all dream of winning it all in Game 7, scoring the big goal and the team carries you off. Tyson Baillie had a pretty impressive one against Seattle to finalize a hat trick so he knows the importance of bringing everything you have. Play the game that got you there and it should be just fine….well not Game 6.

Brad Ralph might be interested in getting Riley Stadel a few more minutes for this one. His energy and versatility are almost unmatched and a big hit early could help steer the course in the Rockets favour; combine that with a Chartier/Kirkland goal and Kelowna is on to Round 3!

We are very fortunate to have this series on Shaw so we can enjoy the tight knit hockey one more time I’d assume the East gets the next round so the Rockets will have to climb one more mountain to get their names in lights once again.

But first, the Victoria Royals. It will be nail biting, it will be stressful and it will most definitely be must see TV.

As Regan Bartel sets us up each game on AM 1150, he leaves us with this “Pitter Patter Lets Get At Er”

Photo – Times Colonist

Rockets Showing Glimpses of Memorial Cup Run

When this series started, I had the Royals winning in 7 games. As good as Kelowna has been this year, Victoria just seemed to have the IT factor, especially to close out the season. As the Rockets enter Game 6 on home ice, they have a chance to close it all out and prove to the CHL powers that be that rankings are nothing more than a number on paper.

They may not have the Tyrell Goulbournes, Madison Boweys, Nick Merkleys or even Jackson Whistle but the veterans have stepped it up a notch this series and are getting results.

Tyson Baillie hasn’t been the hot hand this post season but when you need a big goal, he’s your man.

So maybe Baillie hasn’t been the guy but Justin Kirkland has brought his game to another level against the Royals. His big shot and offensive awareness have been game changers in the last 3 tilts. With 3 goals and an assist in the series, he’s getting the looks and making the most of his chances.

His goal in Game 5 to make it 3-1 was a PP marker and at that point there was no turning back. Speaking of the power play, the Rockets sure waited to get this going but boy oh boy does it shine now.

As Game 6 approaches, all eyes will once again be on Michael Herringer. He’s been as the kids say, “SICK”, and when he doesn’t make the called save, he seems to be having a bit of the puck luck as well. When you’re on your game, things just seem to go your way. Herringer gives the Rockets the ability to press a little harder at the other end knowing their goaltender can bail them out.

Even when Herringer doesn’t make every save, he has Joe Gatenby to back him up. Gatenby has been a defensive gem in this series and keeping Joe Hicketts, Jack Walker and Logan Fisher off the score sheet has been a chore but he’s up to it. Yes, he’s been out there for a few but his overall game has built confidence in the Rockets end.

The one line that might just take Kelowna all the way again has a familiar face and a few welcome additions. Rourke Chartier, Tomas Soustal and Calvin Thurkauf have been a delight. These guys love to score and Rockets fans are sure glad they do. A combined 5 goals and 10 assists in 6 games, the top line is surging and it won’t surprise anyone if they get the ball rolling again on Sunday.

Its not just pucks going in the net, these 3 are making it look fun.

Thank you WHL gifs!

The series isn’t over just yet but after Game 5, its tough to see the Rockets regressing in the series. After back to back wins on back to back nights, Kelowna found another gear and are making the Royals pay for any mistakes they make. Herringer is stopping everything in sight and the Rockets power play is starting to click.

Victoria will need a perfect game from their goaltender, whoever that may be, and they need to stay disciplined. Sure, I’m saying this on the Kelowna side but watching them take mindless penalties makes it that much easier for the Rockets to put this away.

Cole Linaker finally got his game going and I expect a big Game 6 from him. Every Rocket player looks poised to head to the next round and I thought the Royals would be the team to beat, but they’re looking a lot like Brandon did a year ago.

We all know what happened after that….but lets not bring up the Final just yet.

Not going to the game, check it out the WHL on Shaw, Ch 304

Photo – Marissa Baecker Shoot the Breeze

#thismomentweownit

Rockets Ready For Island Life And Series Lead

The Kelowna Rockets must have enjoyed some good home cooking or maybe an afternoon at Cecil’s Perogy Palace, because it seemed that all that was needed to get back into the series against the Victoria Royals was a sleep in their own bed. Counting on home wins alone will end up burning the Rockets this round as they don’t have the last change.

After last night’s tug-o-war, the Rockets have to be feeling confident enough to know they can win this series if they keep their heads on a swivel. Game 4 was definitely a battle of special teams. Victoria just couldn’t bury on the man advantage going 0 for 5 and there were chances, there were very good chances.

What the Rockets could not do all of Round 1 was capitalize on the PP. The Royals offered up 5 power plays to Kelowna and FINALLY the Rockets made them pay. No goal was bigger than Cole Linaker’s GWG power play marker with 10 seconds left in the game. If it wasn’t for captain Rodney Southam driving to the net and getting hauled down, who knows where this game would have gone.

They could still be playing.

It was a back and forth battle with leads not lasting longer than a TV time out. Justin Kirkland took the early lead in the 3rd and every Kelowna fan was thinking about having a Game 6 on Sunday. Nice thought. Logan Fisher potted his 2nd of the night and crushed dreams, just crushed em.

Kirkland’s big body game has really been noticeable this series and the goal he scored made it all worth it. What also has been noticeable and I don’t mind being wrong about it is the play of Lucas Johansen.

I really didn’t understand why his draft status climbed so much; I thought his decisions on the power play were a bit laid back and that he held the puck too long when he could have unloaded the shot he has. Statistics seem to speak for themselves and 10 goals and 39 assists seem to do most of the talking and as I have watched him more intently, I’ve noticed his fast shot.

He has made his presence known on the back end and my criticism of his play has recoiled dramatically. He’s a solid player back there and whether he’s the next stud d-man out of Kelowna is yet to be seen, but they have reliable puck moving defender and those aren’t necessarily something that grows on trees.

Going into tonight’s game, Michael “Stone Cold” Herringer will once again need to bring the game that has kept the Rockets in this series. Game 4 wasn’t his best start but he made a few saves that well, we noticed.

Loading up on the power play again might be Kelowna’s key to victory. The 5 man forward group has panned out but to end the game adding Cal Foote was a nice safe touch, no one wants to see that backfire with 5 forwards…not in this town.

Whether Coleman Vollrath is the starter or not, the Rockets have to prepare to just drive the net again and get dirty up front. The drive by Southam that led to the game winner was a prime example of what it will take to win this thing. The Royals made the Rockets pay just the same on a few goals, a breakaway and a dog fight in front of Herringer.

Winning in Victoria won’t be easy though; these games have all been close and when it’s been a home team wins series, it will be tough to take that first one on the road. The nice thing is, if they do, there’s a pretty happy crowd ready to close it out before the weekend is done…AND they’ll be home in time to catch the season finale of Vinyl on HBO.

I’m all about creating win/wins.

Go Rockets GO!

photo – Vancouver Island CTV News

Rockets In For Long Series Versus Royals

After losing two straight in Victoria, the Rockets went from effort to results. Game 3 wasn’t flawless for Kelowna but their compete level was noticeable and the difference was the final score. Game 4 is going to be a war and if the Rockets are wanting to go back to the island tied up, they’ll need every bit of game they had from Tuesday.

Michael Herringer started Game 3 quietly stealing the show, by the end, he was the #1 star. The defining moment of that game for me was his sprawling save in the first period that led to an end to end rush followed by Rourke Chartier banging home the tic tac toe goal. Had Herringer allowed that goal, it would have been 1-1 and who knows where that game goes.

Speaking of Chartier, he could not be stopped. Thursday night will be another chance for him to show why he has been a leader all year even with the loss of Nick Merkley. Charts is currently tied with Tomas Soustal at 8 points for the team lead. Both have been integral goal scorers and against Coleman Vollrath they’ll need to be again.

Chartier hooked Soustal up for the game winning goal in the 3rd and the effort continued until the end.

Tyson Baillie was held in check for the most part as the series shifted to Kelowna but believe you me, this is where he shines. Baillie is all kinds of clutch in the playoffs and nothing would surprise me if Game 4 went to OT and Baillie was the hero.

The Rockets employed a new look PP and I wonder if we’ll see that same bold strategy again. Coach Brad Ralph sent out 5 forwards on the 5 on 3 and it paid off. Kelowna needs to keep getting creative with the man advantage and get their blue line more involved. Those shots are coming and it seems like Lucas Johansen is getting time and space enough that he can unload his quick shot.

It all circles back to goaltender Michael Herringer. He was tested and saw a good chunk of the shots he faced. There were some semi-desperation saves, a few game changers and his battle level was tops.

What I love about Herringer is that he’s stone cold in net. No matter the stage, he doesn’t flinch or get flustered. He treats every save like a transaction – square up, see the shot, save the shot. Repeat. I made a comment when the season started that he’s like the hero that slo-mo walks away from the building exploding in the background.

Guy just doesn’t looked startled at all. Down the stretch he will be the Rockets difference maker when the scoring dries up.

Thursday night’s game can bring the Rockets back to square one with the Royals and make it a best of 3. You want that, I want that, they want that.

So go and do it.

 

photo – timescolumnist.com

Rockets Need To Dig Deep To Eliminate Winterhawks

After the Kelowna Rockets beat the Portland Winterhawks late in OT #1 of Game 5, the pressure to close out the series got even greater. The Rockets have lost to the Hawks in the playoffs 2 of the last 3 years. This time, they have a chance to slay the dragon and face off against the top team in the WHL, the Brandon Wheat Kings. It won’t be easy and with Game 6 in Portland, the home crowd will be rowdy. Should be great!

Kelowna will be without energy forward and assistant/alternate captain (who cares how you say it) Tyrell Goulbourne after his calf was cut going into the corner during the second period of Game 5. Goulbourne will be out for awhile and knowing what we know about an injury like that, you can’t just rush back. Rourke Chartier was also on the sidelines for that game and it would be a big boost if he worked into the lineup.

Lets chat about a few of the obvious things for a sec:

  • Hawks goalie Adin Hill has been beyond amazing! His glove hand rivals that of Grant Fuhr and his game stealing kick saves have put Kelowna fans into fits. This kid is unreal and Portland will reap the rewards for a few years after this. Easily the man that holds the series in his hands. Don’t get me wrong, there are some star players in this one but no one has played at his level.
  • Leon Draisaitl has been everything the Rockets could have asked for this year. After being sent back to junior from the Edmonton Oilers and traded to Kelowna, he has given Rockets fans NHL caliber play every night. He does look floaty at times but when the puck hits his stick, he takes off and takes over. If Kelowna does go to the Memorial Cup this spring, that Draisaitl addition will be a big reason they do.
  • Anyone that knows me knows that I am a diehard fan of Rockets hybrid forward Nick Merkley, aka Merk Merk, Merkdaddy and Merkilicious. Its easy to get excited about this kid when you see him play live. From Merkley’s first game 2 years ago, to this year’s WHL Western Conference Finals, he has improved at every facet of his game. His puck sense in unmatched, his playmaking ability is downright filthy and when he controls the puck he controls how the rest of the players will react. If he bulks up another 15 lbs or so and grows maybe an inch or two, whatever team drafts him in June will be getting a star.
  • That Madison Bowey hit

Both the Rockets and Winterhawks figured they would be playing each other in the Western Final when the season began, who else would have matched them? So the fact that they are playing each other again this season after facing off last year at this time is not surprising. Portland is without a few big names from last year (Matt Dumba, Brendan Leipsic ) but Rocket killer Nic Petan, his team mates Oliver Bjorkstrand, Anton Cederholm and Alex Schoenborn have given the Kelowna their moneys worth.

Enough about the Hawks already! What about Tyson Baillie and Chance Braid? Baillie has been the prototypical hero for Kelowna since he has joined the Rockets and his knack for OT thriller goals keeps us wanting more. I wouldn’t be surprised if he factors in on the winning goal again if Kelowna takes it tonight. When Leon Draisaitl was platooned with Baillie, the second line instantly became a 1B line to compliment the Chartier/Merkley duo up front. This team is experienced and ready for the next challenge, we’ve seen Portland’s best and now they will see ours.

Chance Braid has given the Rockets some much needed extra grit when guys like Riley Stadel and Tyrell Goulbourne are making their offensive push. However, in the playoffs Braid has actually shown his scoring touch and his net presence has given the Rockets another unlikely weapon. This guy can hit and he can get the puck to that red pipey thing with net on it.

While Adin Hill has been stealing the show for Portland in the net, Jackson Whistle has had a bit of a different path for Kelowna. In typical Canucks-fanlike fashion, as soon as our goalie shows a sign of weakness we criticize how he isn’t good enough and then he bounces back with a 40 save effort and follows it up with some game breaking saves the next night. With cool hand Michael Herringer ready to take over at a moments notice, Whistle knows every game is the biggest game he will play.

I personally have questioned Whistle a few times this year but he’s stepped up when it has mattered the most. Finish it out Jackson, be the hero.

So with one win left and a chance to face the Wheat Kings, the Kelowna Rockets need to bring the game they have been waiting to play: the one where there is no doubt in their minds they are the champs.

Puck drop is at 5pm.

Go Rockets Go!

Follow me on twitter: @always90four


Photo credit – zimbio.com