As the Kelowna Rockets get ready for it six-game road trip through the Western Hockey League’s East division, the team sits firmly in second place in the B.C. Division with a record of 17-8-2-1. The Rockets are one of only six teams so far with less than 10 regulation losses this season.
In fact, the Rockets are a mere two points behind the Victoria Royals (18-10-3), with three games in hand. Suffice to say that the B.C. Division is a two-horse race this season.
Kelowna started the current campaign with a 4-4-1-1 record through it first ten games, an improvement over last season when the team came out of the gate at 3-7 through its first ten. In its last 18 games, Kelowna has posted a run of 13-4-1. The Rockets are 9-3 against divisional opponents.
This week, Kelowna will travel east through the Rocky Mountains with its next order of business a six-game swing on the road against each of the East Division teams. The first game is in Regina on Friday against the Pats, who will host the 2018 Memorial Cup next May. The next night, the Rockets travel to Brandon to meet the surprising Wheat Kings.
While the team headquarters out of Regina, it will also play the Moose Jaw Warriors (Dec. 12) and the Swift Current Broncos (Dec. 13). The road trip winds up with games against the Prince Albert Raiders (Dec. 15) and the Saskatoon Blades on Dec. 16.
Queue the adversity
Despite its early success, the team has not gone without some significant challenges.
On Oct. 27 against the Tri-City Americans, forward Erik Gardiner made a great play to block a shot in the dying seconds, then set up the game-winner in the overtime, springing Carsen Twarynski on a breakaway to nail down a 4-3 decision. But it was the shot block that has hindered Gardiner since, a drive that caught the second year forward high where the facial shield attaches to the helmet. The impact basically destroyed his head gear and Gardiner, a top-six forward this season, has been on the shelf ever since.
Shortly after returning from the Canada/Russia Super Series, Kole Lind fell ill and missed six straight games with what was diagnosed as mononucleosis. While it took the Rockets some time to confirm the ailment, it is believed Lind played for some time while ill. Despite his absence from the lineup, the 19-year-old remained the team’s leading scorer through November. He returned for game action on Dec. 2 against the Kootenay Ice, the Rockets final home date before the pre-Christmas eastern swing.
It was also announced on Nov. 11 that 19-year-old goaltender Brodan Salmond would miss four to six weeks to recover from a nagging knee injury. And second year forward Nolan Foote sat out for 12 days after taking a hit to the head in a Nov. 17 game against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Throughout the illness and injury turmoil, the Rockets depth forwards have begun to contribute offensively with some consistency. The team has parlayed solid early starts on home ice into a winning streak that has seen the group chase down the Royals while also distancing itself from the B.C. Division lesser lights.
When leading after the first period, Kelowna is 9-1-0-1 and when ahead after 40 minutes, the Rockets are 12-0-0-1.
Hockey Canada comes calling
It is expected that Lind, Dillon Dube and Cal Foote will attend Hockey Canada’s selection camp for the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, New York, Dec. 26 to Jan. 5.
The trio played for Team WHL in the Canada/Russia Super Series in early November, where Lind and Dube were named games stars. Dube was a member of Team Canada last season, the group that earned a silver medal. Foote, from Colorado, now meets the residential eligibility requirements to represent Canada at the event and Lind impressive play early this season has caught the eye of Hockey Canada brass.
It would be a bittersweet scenario if all or any of the trio leave the Rockets during its eastern swing, as Lind, Dube and Foote are a huge part of Kelowna’s core group. Their absence would mean the Rockets would face at least two of the WHL’s top teams this month without its full arsenal.
The City of St. Catharines, Ontario will play host to the selection camp, Dec.12-15. The pre-tournament schedule includes three games – two against U SPORTS stars Dec. 13 and 14, then a tilt against Denmark on Dec. 15. The tournament roster will be announced following these three games.
The National Junior team will complete its pre-tournament schedule with a pair of games in southern Ontario – Dec. 20 against the Czech Republic, then Dec. 22 against Switzerland.
And speaking of the Czech Republic, it is entirely possible that Rockets rookie import defenceman Libor Zabransky, 17, could garner a look for the WJC. Through 28 games this season, Zabransky has scored once and added six assists.
Former Rockets goaltender Jordan Cooke, who was named the CHL’s Top Goaltender after the 2013-14 season, has been named to the U SPORTS team that will play two exhibition games against the Team Canada hopefuls.
Cooke, from Leduc, Alberta, appeared in 174 regular season and playoff games for the Rockets over four full seasons. Now 24, Cooke continues to dominate in the U SPORTS Canada West Conference.
He is in his fourth year with the Saskatoon-based University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
There is little doubt that Dillon Dube (16-26; 36) and Carsen Twarynski (19-13; 32) have very competently carried the offensive load during the absence of Kole Lind (12-22; 34).
Dube has found another gear of late, collecting 11 goals and 11 assists in the Rockets 13 games played since Nov. 1. The 20-year-old Twarynski, whose previous career best was a 20-goal season with the Calgary Hitmen during his draft year, has already scored 19 times, including two hat tricks and three game winners.
Kyle Topping, 18, who is one of four Rockets to play in all 28 games, has chipped in offensively with 10 goals and 20 assists to provide crucial depth scoring.
Leif Mattson, 18, who missed much of the early going with an injury, has scored seven goals and eight assists in 19 games. The aforementioned Gardiner, 18, was scoring at a point-per-game clip before being sidelined. Rookie Liam Kindree, 16, has added some spark with five goals and 11 assists since being partnered with Dube and Twarynski of late.
Defenceman Cal Foote (6-20; 26) and 20-year-old Gordie Ballhorn (2-17; 19) are beefing up the offence from the backend.
Keepers of the cage
James Porter Jr., 17, has filled in admirably with Salmond on the shelf, along with 16-year-old Roman Basran. The tandem is currently among the youngest in the WHL.
Porter, from Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, does not possess sparkling numbers, but he has successfully earned the confidence of the team in front of him with his solid play. In 20 appearances, Porter has compiled a 12-4-2 record, 3.34 goals against average and a .900 save percentage.
Basran, who played in the 2017 U-17 Hockey Challenge in November, earned a 38-save shutout against the Medicine Hat Tigers in his first WHL start on Nov. 25. The Delta, B.C. native followed that up on Dec. 2, backstopping the Rockets to a 5-2 victory against the Kootenay Ice. In three appearances, Basran is 2-0 with a 1.51 GAA and a .952 save percentage.
Rockets Fuel…The Rockets have won ten straight games on home ice, the longest current home winning streak in the WHL…Through 28 games, Kelowna has scored 109 goals, good for an average of 3.89 per outing. On the flip side, the Rockets have given up 96 goals, an average of 3.42 per game…The team is 11-3-0-1 at home and 6-5-2 on the road…Against teams outside the B.C. Division, Kelowna is 8-5-2-1…In 125 power play opportunities so far, the Rockets have scored 35 times, good for a 28% proficiency. That’s fifth overall among the 22 WHL teams. On home ice, the Rockets power play is 18-for-65, tops among B.C. Division teams…Kelowna has surrendered 31 power play goals, sporting the 13th best penalty kill in the ‘Dub at 77.5%….The Rockets have scored six shorthanded goals and have given up four shorties…Zabransky, Ballhorn, Cal Foote and Topping are the four regulars that have played in each of the Rockets first 28 games this season…The Rockets have attracted over 5,000 fans for five of its last seven games at Prospera Place.