In the spring of 2016, Nick Merkley could only watch helplessly from the sidelines as his Kelowna Rockets teammates succumbed to the Seattle Thunderbirds in four straight games.
Twelve months later, the 19-year-old centre will be right in the thick of the battle as the Rockets look for some payback against the ‘Birds in the 2017 edition of the WHL’s Western Conference final.
“Obviously that was tough to watch (last year), to not be part of the outcome of that series,” said Merkley who sat out the last three months of last season with a knee injury.
“It’s going to be fun and exciting to be part of it this time, to see if we can come out with a different result.”
The Rockets head into this spring’s tilt with Seattle considerably healthier and much better rested than a year ago.
In 2016, Kelowna survived a pair of gruelling seven-game series against Kamloops and Victoria, and were admittedly running on fumes en route to being swept away by the Thunderbirds.
This season, the Rockets needed just 11 games to get through the first two rounds and will have had a full week off before this Friday’s series opener in Kent, WA.
Merkley said this time around, his club is far better equipped for the task ahead.
“Back-to-back seven-game series, those take their toll on any team, and we just didn’t have much left last year,” said Merkley, who has 12 points in 11 playoff games to date. “This year, we’re ready to go, the guys are feeling good and rested, and we feel like we’re firing on all cylinders. We’re going to have a good week of practise and be excited and ready to play Friday.”
The Thunderbirds (98) finished three points ahead of the Rockets (95) during the regular season, but Kelowna won three of four regular season meetings between the clubs.
While the Rockets needed 11 games to advance to the third round, Seattle needed just eight, disposing of Tri-City and Everett in back-to-back sweeps.
Led by New York Islanders’ prospect Matthew Barzal, Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton expects the Thunderbirds to provide Kelowna with its toughest playoff test yet.
“They’re going to be a real good challenge for us,” Hamilton said of the Thunderbirds who lost to Brandon in last year’s WHL final. “They’re a real good hockey team and have really improved since Christmas.
“They’re experienced, they have a number of guys who have been there before and know how tough it is this time of year. They have one of the game’s most exciting young players (Barzal) and some pretty good depth.
“They haven’t faced a lot of adversity yet in the playoffs, but we know we’ll have our hands full.”
The Rockets will be without Cal Foote for Game 1 on Friday, as the 18-year-old defenceman serves the last of a three-game suspension incurred for a check to the head during the Portland series, while forward Carsen Twarynski returns after serving a one-game suspension for a boarding major in Game 4 against the Winterhawks.
Forward Erik Gardiner is expected back in the lineup after being injured in a hit from behind in Game 3, while defenceman Braydyn Chizen is expected to remain sidelined for this weekend’s game with a leg injury.
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
To say Reid Gardiner has been firing on all cylinders in the WHL playoffs would be an understatement.
With 12 points in his last three games—including a career high six points in Game 5 against Portland—the Kelowna Rockets forward has been named the WHL’s and Canadian Hockey League’s player of the week.
After totalling two goals and four assists in Games 3 and 4 last week in Portland, the 21-year-old Humboldt native scored four times and added a pair of assists to lead the hometown Rockets to a 6-2 victory in the series clincher Friday at Prospera Place.
Gardiner, who was acquired by the Rockets from the Prince Albert Raiders prior to the WHL trade deadline, currently leads the WHL playoffs in scoring with 22 points, on 12 goals and 10 assists in 11 games.
Gardiner spent the first half of the 2016-17 season with the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Penguins of the American Hockey League.