Mitchell Callahan remembers vividly the nerves and anticipation he felt prior to his first major junior playoff game with the Kelowna Rockets two years ago.
So the hard-nosed forward knows from experience what his rookie teammates must be feeling on the cusp of the Western Hockey League post season.
“I’m still feeling some nerves and I’ve been through this twice before,” Callahan said with a laugh. “The playoffs are a new game, a different atmosphere, the game is faster and more physical, and there’s a lot on the line every shift.
“I know it’s exciting for our younger guys, it’s going to be a little bit new to them and there’s going to be nerves…but I think they’ll be well prepared. This is what you play for all season.”
Of the 25 Rockets currently with the club, nine have no previous WHL playoff experience.
Among the first-timers is rookie sniper Zach Franko, who has been anxiously awaiting his first foray into the WHL playoffs.
“All of us (rookies) are looking forward to this, it’s a huge step in our careers, none of us have been through anything quite like this,” said Franko, a 22-goal scorer this season. “The place will be rocking, the stakes will be high, but when the time comes we’ll need to be focused. The young guys will have to help out just as much as other guys on the team.
“The coaches have prepared us well and if we stick to that, then the same things we were doing in the regular season should work in the playoffs.”
While more than a third of the team is devoid of any WHL playoff experience, there is a solid contingent of Rockets who are battle-tested in the post-season.
Tyson Barrie, Geordie Wudrick, and Evan Bloodoff each have 41 games under their belts, Callahan has played in 34, while Spencer Main carries with him 24 games of playoff experience.
Rockets assistant Ryan Cuthbert said it will be up to the club’s leaders to set the tone and example for the Rockets
“The veterans are the guys who are responsible for getting everybody going and all pulling in the same direction,” said Cuthbert. “Whether it’s on the ice, in the room, on the bus, those are the guys that show the way things are done. If they’re preparing the right way and doing the right things, then the young guys will feed off that and follow that. At this time of year, it’s the mistakes that kill you, so preparation is key.”
Those fledgling Rockets can also lean on the coaches for support, a staff that has experienced more than its share of playoff hockey over the years.
Head man Ryan Huska won three Memorial Cups as a player and has coached at four more CHL championships. Assistant Dan Lambert won a Memorial Cup in 1989, while Cuthbert has 45 games of post-season savvy under his belt, including a 2003 WHL championship with the Rockets.
From Cuthbert’s perspective, striking a balance between being relaxed while still playing with intensity, is key for the Rockets newcomers.
“I think we as coaches have to keep it calm on the bench and in the room,” said Cuthbert. “And as a player it’s the same story, you can’t get too high or too low. It’s a matter of getting settled into the game, the first 10 minutes is always very important to get out there feeling good about your game and the team’s game.”
Bloodoff to sit four
Veteran forward Evan Bloodoff will miss the first four games of the 2011 Western Hockey League playoffs.
The league suspended the 20-year-old Bloodoff Tuesday for his actions in last Saturday’s 4-3 home ice loss to the Vancouver Giants.
Bloodoff was assessed a major and a game misconduct for a charging penalty after leaping into Giants’ defenceman Joel Rogers along the endboards.
Rogers, who was taken from the ice by stretcher, is currently sidelined with a concussion.
Bloodoff will be eligible for Game 5 of the Rockets first-round playoff series with Prince George.