No one has to point out to Colton Jobke how crucial the next seven games of the Western Hockey League season are to the Kelowna Rockets.
All seven are against B.C. Division rivals and will, in all likelihood, go a long way in determining where the Rockets finish at season’s end.
“It’s a huge stretch of games for us,” said Jobke, 18, a second-year blue liner with the Rockets. “I mean, it’s a perfect opportunity to separate ourselves a little bit more and try and spread things out some. If we can get some wins here against division opponents over the next couple of weeks, it should help to set us up, put us in a good position going into the playoffs.”
The Rockets’ first of seven straight meetings against B.C. opposition is Friday night at Prospera Place against the Prince George Cougars.
Kelowna will also play Vancouver once, Chilliwack three times, and the Cougars twice more during the stretch.
The division race remains tight, but thanks to a three-game sweep of U.S.-based teams last weekend the Rockets have gained some valuable momentum and a little breathing room.
Kelowna (27-20-0-0, 54 points) is just a point back of Vancouver (25-19-1-4) for top spot—with two games in hand—while Prince George (49), Chilliwack (46) and Kamloops (45) are all now chasing the Rockets.
When the Giants come calling Saturday night, the storied rivalry will not only feature a battle for first place, but two of the Western Conference’s hottest teams. Vancouver has won nine of its last 11, while Kelowna has six wins in its past seven games.
Just a month ago, the Giants had slumped to last place in the division and looked to be down for the count. Vancouver made five deals prior to the trade deadline—including sending Craig Cunnigham to Portland—and appeared to be planning for more for the future than the present.
But with the acquisitions of players like Spencer Bennett—19 points in 12 games—and the addition of big-bodied Slovakian centre Andrej Statsny, the Giants have turned their fortunes around in short order.
Rockets veteran Evan Bloodoff, for one, isn’t overly surprised by Vancouver’s resurgence.
“They’ve always been a hardworking team and they have a great coach in Don Hay, so you can never count them out,” said Bloodoff, 20. “I think when they traded their top guy (Cunningham), it opened up spots for some their younger guys, and they’ve obviously stepped up. I think they’re just starting to come together as a team now.”
Like the Giants, the Rockets recent run of success has moved them into a favourable position to challenge for the B.C. Division crown.
In addition to earning a first or second seeding for the first round of the playoffs, a B.C. title would carry with it a clear sense of accomplishment for Rockets veteran Mitchell Callahan.
“You always want to be the best team in your division and one of the best teams in your conference and we keep working towards that,” said Callahan. “That’s what we wanted here from day one. I think we have the team characteristics, on the ice and in the locker room to make it happen. If we play our game and keep things simple the rest of the way, I don’t see why we can’t do that.”
Following this weekend’s two-game set at home, the Rockets will host Chilliwack next Wednesday, then will head to Prince George for a doubleheader against the Cougars Feb. 4 and 5.