When the Kelowna Rockets and Tri-City Americans face off Friday night at Prospera Place to open the Western Hockey League playoffs, arguably two of the best 19-year-old players in the world will be on display.
German-born forward and Edmonton Oilers’ prospect Leon Draisiatl will be doing his level best to help the Rockets solve Eric Comrie, Tri-City’s puck-stopper extraordinaire.
The Rockets, who finished 47 points ahead of the Americans in the WHL’s regular season standings, are understandably heavily favoured to make their way into the second round in reasonably short order.
Kelowna needed just five games to dispose of Tri-City during last spring’s playoff run.
Yet, if there’s one dynamic that concerns Kelowna GM Bruce Hamilton against the underdog Americans, it’s the Winnipeg Jets’ draft pick in the Tri-City crease.
Hamilton, a member of Hockey Canada’s junior management team, saw Comrie’s handywork firsthand at this year’s world junior tournament.
“(Comrie) is the best goalie in our league and the one of the best goalies in Canada,” said Hamilton. “He can win games on his own, he’s definitely a difference-maker. We’ll need to get lots of traffic in front and get pucks by him.”
Comrie’s daunting challenge will be turning aside a Rockets team that scored a Western Conference-leading 305 goals this season and led the WHL in power play efficiency.
Factor in Draisaitl, who racked up 53 points in just 32 games since being dealt from the Prince Albert Raiders, and Comrie and the young Americans will have their hands full.
While he’s been pleased with Draisaitl’s production to date, Hamilton hopes the playoffs will evoke even better results from the 6-foot-2, 210-pound forward.
“Leon brings something very unique to our team,” Hamilton said. “If we get him to continue to be excited about playing, he’s a guy that can singlehandedly decide a game and change a game.
“He’ll be more excited to play on Friday than he’s been for a month,” added Hamilton,” so we’re looking forward to good things from him.”
The Rockets took three of four regular season meetings between the teams, outscoring the Ams 17-7 in the process.
With the odds stacked against them, Hamilton expects the Americans to play loose and with nothing to lose. The Rockets, said Hamilton, need just play their game.
“They had a great finish to the season,” he said of Tri-City. “They don’t have anything to worry about, so I’m sure they’ll try and disrupt us. We just have to keep playing the way we can.”
Games 1 and 2 go this Friday and Saturdays at Prospera Place, with Games 3 and 4 set for Kennewick, WA next Tuesday and Wednesday.