Uphill but not insurmountable. Even without top-scoring forward Brett Bulmer, the Kelowna Rockets have no plans to concede their Western Conference quarterfinal series to the Portland Winterhawks.
Bulmer, a 34-goal scorer and the Rockets team MVP in 2011-12, has been suspended for a kneeing major, the result of a hit on Winterhawks’ defenceman William Wrenn during the third period of Game 2 Saturday in Portland.
As of Monday, the length of the suspension hadn’t been determined but, at the least, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound forward will miss Game 3 Tuesday at Prospera Place.
After watching the Winterhawks take the first two games of the first-round series on home ice, Rockets’ head coach Ryan Huska says it’s time for his squad to return the favour.
“(The Winterhawks) won their two games at home, now we have an opportunity to do the same and make a series out of this,” said Huska.
Despite a 6-3 loss on Friday night, Huska was relatively pleased with his team’s energy and effort in the series opener. The same, however, couldn’t be said for Game 2 as the high-powered ‘Hawks dominated Kelowna from start to finish in a 4-0 win. Only a stellar effort by Rockets’ goalie Adam Brown helped avert a more lopsided result.
For the remainder of the series, Huska said every player, particularly the team’s veterans, must stand up and be counted.
“I think it’s a matter of challenging our older players to be quite a bit better,” Huska said. “I also think as a group we need to show more urgency to control the puck, and to play with more courage. It wasn’t so much the hitting and physical stuff, we were fine with that. We just need to win more puck battles.”
As expected, Ty Rattie and Sven Baertschi have been the Winterhawks’ most dangerous and productive forwards through the first two games.
Rattie has four goals and an assist, while Baertschi has already tallied five assists.
And while shutting down the two entirely isn’t a likely scenario, the Rockets’ know success will hinge on their ability to limit the damage done by the offensively-gifted duo.
“We’ve gotta be on the body, we can’t give them space and time and have to be constantly on them,” Rockets forward Cody Chikie said of Rattie and Baertschi. “We have to push their D (defencemen), too, and make it harder for them to move the puck.”
Added Huska: “You have to find a way to slow (Rattie and Baertschi) down a little. They’re very good hockey players, there’s no denying that. We have to make better decisions with the puck when they’re in the area.”
In addition to finishing 30 points ahead of the Rockets during the regular season, the Winterhawks hold a considerable edge in age and experience.
With four 1995-born players and another six born in 1994, the Rockets are one of the youngest clubs in the WHL.
Still, Huska doesn’t inexperience as an alibi for the first two losses.
“I think our young guys have done fine,” Huska said. “As always they follow what the big guys do, so our older players need to be better.”
As of Monday, both D Mitchell Chapman (upper body) and F Spencer Main (concussion) remained sidelined with injuries. Captain Colton Sissons, who missed the latter stages of Game 2 with the flu, should be fit and ready for Game 3.
Game 4 will be played Thursday at Prospera Place, with a fifth game, if needed, back in Portland on Saturday night.