The Kelowna Rockets see the Kamloops Blazers more than any other Western Hockey League team during the course of the regular season.
Of the 10 meetings, it’s possible no two games are bigger than this weekend’s home-and-home set between the B.C. Division rivals.
With the Blazers (24-15-1-1) leading the Rockets (23-14-3-0) by one point for second spot, the clubs will face off tonight at the Sandman Centre in Kamloops. Chapter two goes Saturday night, 7:05 p.m., at Prospera Place.
While it’s only early January, Rockets’ head coach Jason Smith said the importance of the two-game set can’t really be over-emphasized.
“They’re obviously huge games,” said Smith. “There are games in the year when you have a chance to really make progress.
“We haven’t done very well against them this year but it’s an opportunity for us to get back in the mix, we’re close in the standings,” added Smith whose Rockets are 2-3-0 against Kamloops this season.
“We have to be ready to play and compete. Their team is playing well, they work hard and play with structure and if we don’t play with structure and play with pace, the results go the other way.”
On a three-game losing streak, the Rockets will get a shot in the arm this weekend with the return of a pair of veteran forwards. Calvin Thurkauf (Switzerland) and Tomas Soustal (Czech Republic) are back with the team from the world junior hockey championship.
Dillon Dube, who played with Team Canada in last night’s gold medal game, is due home today but his return to the team’s lineup is uncertain.
“It’s exciting, obviously those are three key players for our team that play big roles,” Smith said of the returning players. “The guys that got an opportunity to play more over this stretch while they’ve been away stepped up and did lots of good things.
“When you’re missing good guys, you hope they come back and bring energy and execution and really push our team to the next level.”
The Rockets went the better part of a month without the services of Dube, Thurkauf and Soustal, and for the most part played well in their absence.
It’s just over the last three games (0-2-1-0) that Smith has been less than enamoured with his team’s effort.
“I don’t think there’s any excuse for the way we’ve played,” said Smith, refusing to use the absence of the three forwards as an alibi. “You look at our road trip out east (5-1-1-0), we paid attention to detail, we executed at a higher level than we have in the last three games.
“We struggled to be consistent, to do things that allow us to have success…and when you don’t execute you spend a lot of time in neutral rather than moving forward.”