Jim Hiller has no intention of underestimating the defending Western Hockey League champs.
A seven-game upset of the Everett Silvertips in the opening round of the playoffs simply confirmed what the Tri-City Americans head coach already knew about the Kelowna Rockets.
“Kelowna’s a team that we have a lot of respect for with the tradition and the success they’ve had in recent years and they’re a good club again this season,” said Hiller, in his first season as head man of the Ams. ”They’re a very different team than they were last year with all the changes, but I think we know their personnel fairly well, especially their veteran guys.
“I’m not all that surprised they beat Everett,” Hiller added. “We played (Everett) many times during the season, we know how good they are. But the Rockets have that playoff experience and that obviously worked in their favour.”
Hiller’s Americans and Ryan Huska’s Rockets will kick-off their best-of-seven WHL Western Conference semifinal series Friday night at the Toyota Center in Kennewick, Wash. Game 2 will go Saturday night, with Games 3 and 4 slated for Tuesday, April 6 and Wednesday, April 7 at Kelowna’s Prospera Place.
It’s been four months to the week since the Rockets and Ams last met. Tri-City owned the season series, winning all four encounters by a combined score of 20-5.
But with a spate of injuries now cleared up and a couple of key acquisitions prior to the trade deadline, Kelowna is a vastly different team than the one the Ams saw in early December.
The Rockets (35-31-2-4) finished the season with 16 wins in their last 24 games, while the first-place Americans (47-22-1-2) won just 11 of their final 24 contests.
“We’re not going to look at we did against them this year because that was such a long time ago,” said Huska. “We’re in quite a different situation, we’re a lot healthier and feel like we match up a lot better against them now.
“It’s going to be the same story for us, we need to work hard and, if things don’t go our way, we just have to stay confident and stick with the plan.”In the Americans, the Rockets face one of the speediest teams in the WHL.
Led by the diminutive Johnny Lazo (39 goals), Brendan Shinnimin (82 points) and Justin Feser (36 goals), Tri-City topped the Western Conference in goal scoring this season with 272.
“They’re a very skilled team and they showed it by finishing first in our conference,” said Rockets’ captain Lucas Bloodoff. “They really use their speed to beat teams, so what we’re going to have to do is outwork them. We don’t have the high-powered offense, we’re not as skilled as we were last year, so we have to keep things simple and be physical. When we play that way, we have success.”
With one playoff upset win already under their belts, the question is: Can the Rockets make it two in a row by knocking off the favoured Americans ?
Lucas Bloodoff thinks the answer will be delivered by the team that wants it more.
“You look at our conference and it’s really open to anyone,” said Bloodoff, one of three over-age graduating members of the Rockets. “At this time of year, it’s all about will…who’s willing to work the hardest and who’s going to play the price. I know all the guys in our room really want it.”