During his four-plus seasons with three different teams in the Western Hockey League, Dylen McKinlay has had his share of battles with the Kamloops Blazers.
The 20-year-old Kelowna Rockets’ forward expects few will rival the intensity and excitement surrounding Thursday night’s matchup with the Blazers at Prospera Place.
On top of being the No. 1-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League, Kamloops (16-0-0-1) is riding a club-record 14-game winning streak.
While not nearly as hot as the Blazers, the Rockets (8-6-1-1) have been playing some decent hockey of their own with four wins and a shootout loss over the last six games.
“It’s going to be pretty exciting, it’s going to be a really good test to see where we’re at,” said McKinlay, who was acquired by the Rockets from Kootenay in September. “The first couple of games we played them tough, we had a chance to win them both but we didn’t. I think we owe them one, so we’re all excited about it.”
The teams met in a home-and-home series to open the WHL season, with the Blazers winning both times—6-5 in overtime and 3-2.
In each game, the Rockets fell victim to a potent Blazers’ power play which is currently operating at 34 per cent efficiency, second best in the WHL.
Safe to say, limiting the damage by the likes of the dangerous JC Lipon (40 points), Colin Smith (39 points) and Tim Bozon (30 points) will be crucial to the Rockets’ success on Thursday.
“There are a couple keys for us, (goalie) Jordon Cooke will need to have a good night and we can’t take foolish penalties,” said Rockets president and GM Bruce Hamilton. “If you give them power plays, they’ll run up the score on you. The (Blazers) are a run-and-shoot type of team, so we need to compete hard, be physical and stay disciplined.”
Although Hamilton would prefer Kamloops to be chasing his team in the standings, the Rockets GM regards the Blazers’ resurgence as a force in the B.C. Division as a positive development for both organizations.
Hamilton is hopeful the Rockets and Blazers can rekindle the heated rivalries that were prevalent a decade ago.
“Hopefully we can get back to where we used to be, where all the games really mean something,” Hamilton said. “The games were exciting, there was emotion and the fans were into it. The rivalry we had was unreal.
“It’s up to us to chase them, but I’m thrilled for those guys in Kamloops,” he added. “(Owners) Tom Gaglardi and Mark Recchi have done a great job, (GM) Craig Bonner has done a wonderful job of building that team. It’s great to see them doing well and it’s good for our team, too.”
Thursday’s game against the Blazers opens a four-game home stand for Kelowna.
The Rockets will host Prince George Saturday, Edmonton on Wednesday, and Red Deer next Friday.