Big-game experience abundant in WHL semifinal

Kelowna Rockets and Seattle meet for the second straight year in Western conference final

In recent years, no two teams in the Western Conference are more familiar with the concept of going deep into the playoffs than the Kelowna Rockets and Seattle Thunderbirds.

On Friday in Kent, Wash., the clubs will go head-to-head for the second straight spring in the best-of-seven Western Hockey League semifinal series.

In 2016, the Thunderbirds swept Kelowna away in four games, before losing to the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL final.

Two years ago, the Rockets won the league championship, then came within a single goal of securing a Memorial Cup title in Quebec City.

With both the Rockets and ‘Birds carrying an abundance of big-game experience, Rockets defenceman Devante Stephens expects the most composed of the two teams to move on to the WHL final.

“These are two teams that know how to win, that’s for sure,” said Stephens, 20, one of eight Rockets who appeared in the 2015 playoffs. “There’s going to be some adversity for both teams, that’s guaranteed.

“It’s who deals with those situations and overcomes challenges the best that I think is going to win the series.”

A year ago, when they met Seattle, the Rockets were admittedly out of gas after surviving back-to-back seven-game series wins over Kamloops and Victoria.

This spring, the Rockets needed just 11 games to advance to the third round and have had a full week off to rest and prepare. The Thunderbirds are also well rested after needing the minimum eight games to sweep past Tri-City and Everett.

Playing arguably their best hockey of 2016-17, the Rockets have won 20 of their last 24 games dating back to the regular season.

Compared to a year ago, Stephens said the Rockets are better equipped to take on the next challenge.

“We’re playing as a team right now, the guys are all pulling together and that’s the big difference,” Stephens said. “When we stay true to our systems and execute well, we can beat any team in the league.

“The guys were gassed,” Stephens said of last year’s playoff run. “This time, we’ve had a nice break and lots of rest. We’re excited, focused and ready to go.”

Stephens and his teammates will be paying special attention to Seattle’s big three of Matthew Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar who combined for 223 points during the regular season.

The Thunderbirds also expect to have their hands full with a talented and deep group of Rockets forwards, paced by Reid Gardiner, who shares the WHL playoff scoring lead with 22 points.

“These are two pretty similar teams,” said Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk. “The (Rockets) are really deep up front, they have some high-end skill, so all four of our lines are going to have to be committed and be up to the challenge.

“All six of our D are going to have to be ready to go and we’re going to commit to playing a 200-foot game. You have to at this time of year to be successful.”

The Rockets will be without Cal Foote for the series opener, as the 18-year-old defenceman sits out the last of a three-game suspension for a check to the head penalty in Game 3 of the Portland series.

Carsen Twarynski returns to Kelowna’s lineup after being disciplined for one game for a boarding major in Game 4 against the ‘Hawks.

Western Conference final

Friday, April 21— Kelowna @ Seattle 7:35 p.m.

Saturday, April 22—Kelowna @ Seattle 7:05 p.m.

Tuesday, April 25—Seattle @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m.

Wednesday, April 26—Seattle @ Kelowna 7:35 p.m.

Friday, April 28—Kelowna @ Seattle 7:35 p.m.*

Sunday, April 30—Seattle @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m.*

Tuesday, May 2—Kelowna @ Seattle 7:35 p.m.*

* If necessary