Doug Love/Chad Baker

WHL Playoff Previews: Kelowna Rockets vs Tri-City Americans

Season Series:
Kelowna 2-1-1-0
Tri-City 2-1-1-0

October 17th, 2017 / KEL 1 at TC 2
October 27th, 2017 / TC 3 at KEL 4 OT
November 1st, 2017 / KEL 3 at TC 4 OT
January 3rd, 2018 / TC 4 at KEL 5

Leading Scorers season series:
Kelowna: Carson Twarynski (4-2-6)
Tri-City: Nolan Yaremko (4-2-6), Parker AuCoin (3-3-6)

Goalies:
KEL – James Porter (3.19gaa, .895sv% in 4 games vs TC)
TC – Patrick Dea (3.63gaa, ,899sv% in 3 games vs KEL)

How did they get here?

Though they reside in different divisions, the Kelowna Rockets and Tri-City Americans are fairly familiar with each other when it comes to postseason play. They have played each other six times during their storied histories.

Recent playoff history favors the Rockets.

In 2015, Kelowna eliminated the Americans in the first round, a four-game sweep. The Rockets would go on to win the WHL Championship, then lose in the memorial Cup championship game to the Windsor Spitfires.

In 2014, the Rockets and Americans met in the first round, with Kelowna winning the series in five games.

During the 2017-18 regular season, the teams couldn’t have been more evenly matched in the four games played. Each contest was decided by one goal and two games went to extra time. Kelowna won 5-4 and 4-3 in overtime at Prospera Place, while the Americans won 2-1 and 4-3 in overtime at the Toyota Center in Kennewick.

It would appear to be a tall order this season, but the Rockets are looking to advance to the Western Conference final for the fifth straight year.

Nolan Yaremko
(photo-Doug Love)

Kelowna

When the Kelowna Rockets closed out the regular season, compiling a 43-22-5-2 record, the fanbase readied for yet another post-season. In its history, the Rockets have missed the playoffs only once. Indeed, the Rockets got to the post-season because that is what the organization does.

With its sixth straight 40-plus win season, Kelowna clinched it seventh B.C. Division title. That distinction makes for home ice advantage in the first round and a date with the second wild-card qualifying team.

Tri-City

Over the course of the 2017-18 campaign, Tri-City sat in every position possible in the U.S. Division, from first to last, and everywhere in between. Arguably the best division in the WHL, with all five teams qualifying for the postseason, the Americans finished in fourth place with a 38-25-8-1 record and 85 points, which matched their point total from last season when they finished third in the division.

This marks the 14th time in the past 15 seasons Tri-City has qualified for the postseason. However, they haven’t won a playoff series since 2012 and haven’t won a playoff game since 2014. Despite the ups-and-downs of this season, which included a slew of lost man-games to injury, the Americans finished hot winning six of their final seven contests. Five of those wins came against teams ahead of them in the standings.

What does Kelowna have to do to win?

The Rockets have been an inconsistent bunch for much of February and March, frequently giving up multiple goal leads. It’s an experience that followers of the team have not seen over the years and is most certainly reason for concern.

With a core group of elite forwards, including Dillon Dube, Kole Lind and Carsen Twarynski, all destined to move on to professional hockey next season, the there is a feeling that a playoff push in the coming weeks could be last such opportunity as the organization heads into a bit of a rebuild.

Dube is winding down his WHL career, one that includes the 2015 championship as a rookie. He is signed by the Calgary Flames and collected a silver and gold medal along the way with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship. Dube has scored 36 goals and added 44 assists in 52 games this season.

On the backend, Cal Foote has been the best player on the ice for most of the second half of the season. A workhorse, often playing 25 to 30 minutes per outing, Foote is both a calming force and a valuable offensive contributor. Selected by the Tampa Bay Lighting in the first round at the 2017 NHL Draft, he is unsigned at this point, though that would appear to be rather a formality. Foote has scored 19 goals and added 49 assists this season in 59 games.

In goal, James Porter Jr. appears to be the Rockets first choice, at least the team appears to play its best hockey in front of the 17-year-old rookie. Statistically, Porter’s numbers are pedestrian with a 3.35 goals against average and .894 save percentage in 41 appearances. Brodan Salmond, 19, sports a 3.66 goals against average and a .860 save percentage.

The Rockets have the horses to win games 5-4 or 6-5, but one wonders how sustainable this can be as the playoff run moves along.

What does Tri-City have to do to win?

The Americans have arguably one of the best talent pools in the league, with three NHL first round picks – Michael Rasmussen, Juuso Välimäki and Jake Bean.

The lineup includes three 30+ goal scorers and a top nine forward group with the ability to spread out the scoring when they are firing. They will need production from all of them to keep up with the high-octane Kelowna offence. Consistency was a problem for the Americans throughout the year, and they won’t be able to be streaky against Kelowna.

Tri-City has had a bit of a habit of either staring slow, which forces them to get away from their game plan, or giving up leads, which they did in 3 of the 4 games against the Rockets this year. The lost two of those games and one went to overtime before Tri-City won it. The Amerks will need 60-minute efforts.

The good news for the Americans? When they play a full 60-minute game, they very rarely lose.

The Tri-City defense will need to be mobile and accountable. Bean, Välimäki, and Dylan Coghlan will have to play to the best of their abilities to keep the Kelowna speed in check. They are more than capable of doing that, but they also can’t take a shift off.

The forwards are going to get their chances. Kelowna gives up chances. The Americans will need to capitalize on as many of those chances as possible. The middle of the ice is where they thrive. Rasmussen and Morgan Geekie are two of the best in the league at getting to, and staying in front, of the opposition’s net. That trend will have to continue.

In the first two games, Kelowna will get the matchups they want, so the secondary offence will need to create chances as well. Once again, Tri City has the talent to do so; it will just be a question of execution.

Goaltender Patrick Dea, 20, had a lot of question marks coming into the season. He has positively answered most of those questions. It won’t get any easier for him in a long series with Kelowna, but his play lately has shown he can respond. He’s going to face a lot of shots in this series, but with the seventh best save percentage in the league, he seems poised to get the job done.

Five players who will impact this series

1) Michael Rasmussen
2) Dillon Dube
3) Cal Foote
4) Dylan Coghlan
5) Patrick Dea

Predictions:

Aaron Piper (TC Beat Writer)
When the Americans and Rockets met in the first round in 2015, there was a rather wide chasm between the two; a total of 47 points in the standings to be exact. Kelowna was on a different level that year as they went on to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup, and finish just one overtime goal away from winning the Memorial Cup.

This season, both teams are evenly matched. Kelowna finished eight points ahead of Tri-City in the standings, but are also in a division with two teams that didn’t make the playoffs this year. Tri-City hasn’t won in Kelowna since Sept. 29, 2010. They will need to get that monkey off their back, and I believe they will. The two games they played there this season were solid, they just took some shifts off. If the Americans can put together 60- minute efforts night in and night out, not blow leads like they did against Kelowna in the regular season, and have Dea steal a game or two, I think Tri-City takes it in six.

Glen Erickson (Kelowna Beat Writer)
The Rockets have history on their side as an organization that continues to produce playoff hockey for its fanatical Okanagan Valley fanbase. Advancing to the western conference final has become commonplace, as Kelowna aims to do so for the fifth straight season.

The Americans present an immense challenge in the only first round inter-divisional matchup in the conference. The Rockets’ recipe for success is similar to that of Tri City; 60-minute efforts, disciplined hockey from the core group of veterans and Kelowna’s top players have to be the team’s best players every time they step on the ice.

The forwards groups appear to be evenly matched, but give Tri City the edge on the blueline. Neither goaltending tandem has established consistency this season and there does not appear to be a circa 2017 “Carl Stankowski” looming among them. In fact, we could see all four goalies if this series goes six or seven games.

If Tri City can win one of the first two games in Kelowna, I think the Americans win it in six.

On the other hand, over the years many followers of the Rockets have watched the team produce other-worldly performances at just about the time it has felt as though the sky was falling. Indeed, this is a series with no apparent underdog. Flip a coin!

(Photos in the banner by Doug Love and Chad Baker)

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