Rockets battle Hitmen before break

The Kelowna Rockets are about to get a welcome and lengthy break from the grind of the Western Hockey League season.

But not until the final horn sounds Friday night in Calgary does the coaching staff want anyone getting too wrapped up in the spirit of the holiday season.

“It’s always a struggle this time of year keeping the guys focused, but they’ve done a pretty good job of it,” said Rockets assistant coach Ryan Cuthbert. “We’ve got one more game, we’ve got to do the right things and finish strong…then we can have a good break. Overall the guys have been pretty good about not thinking ahead.”

The Rockets will close out a five-game eastern road tour Friday against the Hitmen, then will have 10 days off for Christmas before returning to action Dec. 28 at home to Everett.

So far, the road trip has produced mixed results with wins over Red Deer and Lethbridge and losses to Medicine Hat and Edmonton.

“I thought we played two really good games, and two games where we were OK at times, if that makes sense,” said Cuthbert who, along with fellow assistant Dan Lambert have been guiding the club in Ryan Huska’s absence. “The win in Red Deer and the loss in Medicine Hat, I thought we were very good and the guys came with everything they had in both games. The other two games, we struggled at times and didn’t have the same push. Overall, it’s been all right.”

The Rockets (18-15-0-0) are coming off a 3-2 shoot out win over the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Wednesday.

The game featured the Rockets debut of 15-year-old defenceman Madison Bowey. Kelowna landed the Winnipeg native in the second round of the 2010 bantam draft.

“I thought he was great,” Cuthbert said of Bowey’s effort against Lethbridge. “He’s a guy who makes a good first pass, and he reads the play very well. He was solid and didn’t look a bit out of place.”

The Rockets will get a glimpse of another of their top defensive prospects as Calgary’s Jesse Lees is expected suit up Friday against the Hitmen. Lees was Kelowna’s No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft.

As for Friday’s opponent, the Hitmen have had a tough start to the WHL season and currently sit last in the Eastern Conference.

However, Calgary, the defending WHL champs, have shown signs of life of late with three wins in their last four games.

“They have a great coach (Mike Williamson), systematically they’re very solid, and they’re a hardworking team,” said Cuthbert. “Regardless of where they are in the standings, they’re a good team. I expect a good battle from them.”

The Rockets will be without forward Mitchell Callahan for Friday night’s game.

The 19-year-old California native is in New York at Team USA’s selection camp for the world junior hockey championship.

whenderson@kelownacapnews.com