The Western Hockey League’s No. 1 team against the frontrunners from the U.S. Division—Madison Bowey sees it as an ideal recipe for some intense, playoff-like hockey this weekend in Kelowna.
The Rockets will battle the Everett Silvertips—winners of their last six games—in a WHL doubleheader, Friday and Saturday nights at Prospera Place.
“They’re a great team, they play tight defensively, and give you limited opportunities,” Bowey, the Rockets’ captain, said of the Silvertips. “It’ll be a matter of sticking to our game plan, working hard and matching the effort that they bring. You have two really good teams, so it should be two great games.”
In addition to leading the league in wins and points the Rockets (34-8-3-0) also possess the WHL’s most productive power play at 27 per cent. But because the ‘Tips (30-12-3-1) are the least penalized team in the league, Rockets’ head coach Dan Lambert said his club will likely need to find other avenues to be successful.
“They’re a very good hockey team, they’re disciplined and don’t take a lot of penalties, so you can’t expect to win games against them on the power play,” said Lambert.
“It will be a good measuring stick for us, especially after losing two of the last three.
“You can almost look at it as a mini playoff series.”
Playing the WHL’s top team in back-to-back games should also be a good measuring stick for the Silvertips, who are coming off a two-game sweep of the Cougars this week in Prince George.
But the Silvertips will also be coming to the end of a long haul, and by Saturday will have played six games in nine nights, the last two against a well-rested Rockets team.
“It will certainly be a good test for us, Kelowna is obviously a very good team,” said Silvertips GM Gary Davidson. “It’s been a tough couple of weeks for us with so many games, but we’ve done well and hopefully we can keep it going in that direction. We’ll need to play a team game, that’s the kind of team we have to be.”
The Rockets, still looking for their comfort zone with a number of new players in the lineup, haven’t played since losing 5-2 to Seattle last Friday in Kelowna.
Lambert said a week without games, with plenty of practise time and a chance to bond off the ice has been a welcome scenario.
“I think the biggest thing has been the guys getting comfortable with one another,” he said. “We’ve had some good workouts off the ice, and on the ice it’s given us a chance to recreate that work ethic that we’ve established here. We needed to let the guys know that we can’t be standing around, waiting for other guys to do it.”
As much as bringing in star players, such as Leon Draisaitl and Josh Morrissey, has pushed the Rockets firmly into the status as WHL favourites, Lambert assures nothing is automatic.
“A lot of people thought it was going to be easy after the trades we made,” said Lambert, who emphasized that talent alone doesn’t win.
“If that were the case, that the best team on paper always wins, then you would just give them the two points every time,” he added. “But that’s not the way it works, there’s too much parity in this league. Everybody wants to come in here and beat us, so we need to be ready and rise to the challenge.”
Bowey, for one, believes it’s only a matter of time—ideally this weekend—before the Rockets are firing consistently on all cylinders.
“It doesn’t matter who comes and goes on a team, you still have to come together and work hard,” Bowey said. “It’s all a process, just staying focused, working hard and it will come. The new guys have fit in well and we’re bringing it all together.”
Rockets forward Nick Merkley and Everett defenceman Noah Juulsen, who are in St. Cathariines, ON for the Top Prospects Games, are excepted to rejoin their respective teams for Friday’s game.
Following this weekend’s games, the Rockets will hit the road for a four-game tour of Alberta, beginning Tuesday night in Red Deer.