Marissa Baecker/Shoot the Breeze Jason Smith’s Kelowna Rockets are at the 20-win mark heading into WHL’s Christmas break.

Rockets into Christmas atop B.C. Division

Kelowna heads into Christmas with back-to-back wins and in a first-place tie with Victoria

For the first half of the WHL season, top spot in the B.C. Division proved to be an elusive goal for the Kelowna Rockets—until their final game before the midseason break.

Heading into Christmas, the Rockets (20-11-3-1) and Victoria Royals (20-13-3-0) are deadlocked for the division lead, with Jason Smith’s club holding two games in hand.

Since going 5-5-1-1 over their first 12 games, the Rockets have raised their game to a new level the last two months, going 15-6-2-0.

“I think we’ve done a lot of good things,” said Smith, the Rockets’ head coach whose club is riding a 10-game home-ice winning streak. “We’ve grown as a team and continue to get better. We’re getting contributions from some guys that maybe weren’t expected, and they’re showing improvement every day.

“Our young guys in goal (James Porter and Roman Basran) have done a real good job of stepping up. We’re playing more complete games. The coaching staff is excited we’ve got the results we have and obviously we want to continue.

After starting their pre-holiday eastern tour at 1-3, the Rockets finished strong with a 7-3 win Friday in Prince Albert and a 5-1 victory Saturday in Saskatoon, both without the services of national junior team members Dillon Dube and Cal Foote.

“We started well in Regina, but then had trouble putting together complete games,” said Smith, in his second season as Rockets’ head coach. “Towards the end of the trip, the guys buckled down and did a lot of really good things.”

The Rockets’ last two victories coincided with Kole Lind’s return to the lineup. The 19-year-old forward, who was cut last Thursday from Canada’s national junior squad, scored a hat trick in Prince Albert, then followed up with three assists a night later in Saskatoon.

“Obviously he was disappointed in being released but he didn’t allow the frustration of disappointment to carry over when he came back to our team,” Smith said of Lind. “The effect it had, I think, was a big motivator for him to just go out and play his game.

“It was disappointing for him but it’s important to understand it’s about the long haul in hockey, to continue bringing that compete and work ethic and earning that first pro contract.”

Lind will no doubt be cheering for two of his teammates over the holidays. Dube and Foote will playing for Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championship, beginning on Boxing Day in Buffalo.

The Rockets first action following Christmas is Wednesday, Dec. 27 at home to the Kamloops Blazers. Face off at Prospera Place is 7:05 p.m.

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