The Kelowna Rockets came into the WHL playoffs as the No. 1 seed and heavy favourites in the Western Conference. Their first-round opponents, the underdog Tri-City Americans, checked in at No. 8.
Both teams lived up to their billing on Friday night in Kelowna, as the Rockets rolled the Americans 6-0 to take 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven conference quarterfinal.
Team MVP Rourke Chartier picked up where he left off from the regular season, scoring twice and adding an assist, while Nick Merkley added a goal and two assists for the Rockets in front of a vocal and energized post-season audience of 5,369 at Prospera Place.
Jackson Whistle stopped 18 shots for his first career playoff shutout.
With the Western Conference and B.C. Division titles long since wrapped up, head coach Dan Lambert said the arrival of the post-season brought out the best in his club.
“The guys were excited to play hockey for the first time in a long time,” said Lambert.
“I thought that the unsung heroes really set the tone for us tonight, Chance Braid, Tyrell Goulbourne, Cole Linaker, guys that have to play that type of game for us…it was a great 60-minute game for our hockey club.”
Chartier set up Merkley for a shorthanded marker 13 minutes into the second period for a 2-0 lead, then added another shortie of his own in the third period to put the game out of reach.
Leon Draisaitl, Madison Bowey and Dillon Dube also scored for the Rockets, who led 1-0 after 20 minutes and 4-0 after two.
In addition to Kelowna’s top offensive players delivering as hoped, Lambert said it was a solid effort, from back to front.
“Those guys did that, the checkers checked, the defense played defense, and the goalie stopped pucks so it was a good effort for everyone.”
“I think we played a really great 60 minutes,” said Chartier, who scored 48 goals during the regular season.
“We played well in a lot of the key areas we worked on this week, so it was good to see us execute the way we did.”
While Whistle wasn’t overly busy in making 18 saves for the shutout, he made a couple of key stops early in the second that Lambert said potentially turned the game in Kelowna’s favour.
“If they score there maybe it’s a different hockey game, he came up big and it seemed like the whole bench raised and fed off that.
“I thought that was not only important for our team but for Jackson himself. From there we didn’t give them a whole lot and that’s going to be important for us to play that way.”
As for the atmosphere inside Prospera Place, the Rockets coach was thoroughly impressed by Kelowna fans.
“That was fun, that actually felt like playoffs,” Lambert said. “With the white clappers they had and the atmosphere, great energy, everybody was into it, even the coaches.”
The Rockets and Americans will meet for Game 2 Saturday night at Prospera Place. Face off is