WHL heavyweights set for duel in Kelowna
There may still be five weeks remaining in the regular season, but defenceman Damon Severson is expecting more of a playoff-like atmosphere to descend on Prospera Place this weekend.
The top two teams in the Western Hockey League are on a collision course, as Severson's Kelowna Rockets play host to the Portland Winterhawks on both Friday and Saturday nights.
"It's going to be intense and it's going to feel a lot like a playoff series," said Severson, 18. "You've got the top two teams in the league and both want to prove they're the team to beat. It's a chance for us to send a message in case we meet in the playoffs again. It'll be an exciting weekend."
The Rockets (40-11-3-1) trail the Winterhawks (43-8-1-2) by just five points for top spot in the both the Western Conference and the WHL standings.
Both teams are coming off rare losses. Kelowna lost for the first time in regulation play since Dec. 16, dropping a 5-0 decision in Spokane Wednesday, while Portland fell 4-3 on the same night to Calgary.
To add to the drama, the Rockets' home-ice win streak stands at 23 games, just one victory shy of the franchise record set in 1992-93 when the Rockets played in Tacoma.
The Canadian Hockey League's top-ranked team, the Winterhawks have lost just three times on the road all season.
Even with all that appears to be on the line, Rockets' head coach Ryan Huska hesitates to put too much emphasis on one weekend of games, particularly with a quarter of the regular season yet to go.
"I think it's important for us to remember first of all that these are Games 56 and 57 of the regular season," said Huska, whose Rockets are ranked fourth in the CHL. "If you think of winning, or losing, or splitting is really doesn't make a huge difference at the end of the day. If we get to see them again in the playoffs, then that's when it's really matters. But right now, this isn't the be-all, end-all."
Still, Huska fully understands why it is a much-anticipated weekend for his players and Rockets fans alike.
The Rockets and Winterawks are not only 1 and 2 in the standings, but are also the league's two highest scoring teams—Portland has 245 goals, Kelowna, 244.
Led by top NHL draft prospect Seth Jones and Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Derrick Pouliot, the Winterhawks' attack often begins from the back end.
"The strength of their team is their defence," Huska said of the Winterhawks. "They bring a lot of speed from the defence and they can be hard to contain. In saying that, they have depth up front too, and a good goaltender in Mac Carruth, so they're a very good team from top to bottom."
Winterhawks' forwards Nichloas Petan (93 points) and Brendan Leipsic (90 points) were 1-2 in the WHL scoring race heading into this week's action.
The Rockets possess plenty of depth of their own and have been able to roll four equally capable forward lines. Kelowna has five players with 20 goals or more and four more who have scored at least 12.
Winterhawks coach and GM Travis Green expects his team to be challenged this weekend in Kelowna.
"They have a very deep team and it'll be a good test for our guys," said Green. "They're been on a nice run, they're probably playing better than anybody in the league right now, and they're a confident group. We'll have to be at our best."
The teams split their two previous meetings this season in Portland, with the Winterhawks winning 1-0 on Sept. 28 and the Rockets bouncing back for a 4-3 victory the following night.
Following the weekend set with Portland, the Rockets will head south to Washington on Sunday to visit the Everett Silvertips.