With the exception of having to play 18 1/2 minutes of overtime, the Kelowna Rockets were a model of efficiency in the opening round of the Western Hockey League playoffs.
Now the Western Conference’s top team is being rewarded with a lengthy and much-needed respite before beginning round 2 of the post-season next Friday night at Prospera Place.
Despite the superhuman exploits of goalie Eric Comrie, including 66 saves in Game 4 Wednesday, the Rockets dispatched of the Tri-City Americans in four straight games in best-of-seven conference quarterfinal.
“It was huge for us (to sweep) because of the number of guys we have out, and the players also needed some days away from the rink,” said Hamilton. “It’s been a long season, we haven’t had too many breaks since Christmas so this is a good chance to rest heal up and get ready for the next round.”
Hamilton expects the break will allow some bumps and bruises to heal, as well as getting some other players closer to an eventual return.
Forward Tyrell Goulbourne, who was injured in Game 2, has been pronounced fit and ready and will be back in the lineup next Friday.
Defenceman Josh Morrissey (leg) and forward Justin Kirkland (lower body) haven’t played since February.
Defenceman Mitchell Wheaton returned to the lineup for the two games in Kennewick, his first action since early October due to shoulder troubles.
As they did for much of the regular season, Rourke Chartier and Nick Merkley paced the Kelowna offence in the opening round. Chartier, who turns 19 on Friday, scored four times and added two assists, with two of his goals coming in Kelowna’s come-from-behind 5-4 overtime series-clincher on Wednesday night.
Merkley added a goal and five assists, while captain Madison Bowey led the back end with three goals and five points.
Hamilton said it was nice to see the club’s top players all step up in the manner they did.
“(Rourke and Nick) played real well in the series…Chartier scored a great goal for us in Game 4 and got us rolling,” said Hamilton. “Madison played well and skated miles. Leon (Draisaitl) played real well too, he played a ton of minutes and did a great job on face-offs.”
Jackson Whistle opened the series with back-to-back shutouts and three straight wins, then called on backup Michael Herringer for some help to close out Game 4 and the series.
The Rockets now await the winner of the Victoria Royals-Prince George Cougars series for the second round of the WHL playoffs.
Either way, Kelowna faces a seven to eight-hour journey to the opponent’s rink.
“We’re going to be doing some travelling in the next series no matter who we play, so this break will be nice,” said Hamilton.
Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference semifinal are set for Friday, April 10 and Saturday, April 11 at Prospera Place.
Meanwhile, the WHL regular season champion Brandon Wheat Kings joined the Rockets in advancing to round 2. The Wheat Kings eliminated defending Memorial Cup champion Edmonton in five games.