Twelve months ago, the Portland Winterhawks took down the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL’s Western Conference final.
On the eve of the rematch in 2015, it’s safe to say the Rockets would like nothing more than to return the favour.
And while many of the faces are back on both sides of the ice, Kelowna head coach Dan Lambert sees a considerably different matchup than last spring.
“I think last year you had two different teams than what we see this year,” said Rockets’ head coach Dan Lambert. “They lost a few key pieces, but obviously they’re still a very dangerous team.
“We lost some players, but we added some pieces, too. Every year is different, we’d just like to get it right this time.”
Getting it right means finally seeing his Rockets beat the Winterhawks, who have eliminated Kelowna from the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.
Portland is without three of its key defenceman from last year’s Western Conference championship team as Derrick Pouliot, Tyler Wotherspoon and Matt Dumba have all moved on.
Despite losing Taylor Leier and Brendan Leipsic, Portland still has a potent attack up front, led by Oliver Bjorkstrand (63 goals) and Nicolas Petan, and supported by the likes of Chase DeLeo, Paul Bittner and Alex Schoenborn. In goal, Aiden Hill is a new face, with both Corbin Boes and Brendan Burke having moved on.
In the end, Lambert said most of the Winterhawks have been there, done that.
“They have guys who know what it takes to win. A lot of them have two or three Conference titles. They’re the defending (conference) champs and until somebody can knock them off, that’s who they’ll be.
“They’re still a very good team.”
The same can be said for the Rockets who fortified their roster with the additions of marquee players Leon Draisaitl and Josh Morrissey. Draisaitl, the Edmonton Oilers prospect, leads Kelowna in playoff scoring with 15 points in nine games.
Along with returnees Madison Bowey, Rourke Chartier, Tyson Baillie and Nick Merkley, most observers consider this the best stocked Rockets’ team since the 2009 WHL champs.
In addition, the Rockets are as healthy as they’ve been at any time this season with just one player sidelined.
“We want to make sure we get through this week of practise and get guys feeling better than they already do,” Lambert said. “(A full roster) is a nice problem to have and we’re in a position now where we have some important decisions to make on who plays and who sits out.”
It’s been five months since the old rivals last met when Portland edged Kelowna 4-3 on Nov. 22 at Prospera Place.
Lambert and the Rockets are understandably anxious to renew acquaintances.
“We’re excited,” said Lambert. “Everybody expected (Portland) to come out of their division and were expected to do the same…so here we are again.
“It should be a great series.”
The Rockets and Winterhawks open the best-of-seven conference final on Friday, 7:05 p.m. at Prospera Place.
Game 2 goes Saturday, also in Kelowna.