In what was an otherwise solid December of hockey for the Kelowna Rockets, 2016 didn’t end exactly the way head coach Jason Smith would have preferred.
After consecutive losses to Kamloops and Victoria to close out the year, the Rockets (23-14-2-0) will look to open up 2017 with a much different result Wednesday night when they host the Spokane Chiefs.
“This is a big game for us to start the new year, a chance for us to bounce back,” said Smith. “The last two games certainly weren’t our best efforts. We have to get back to playing the complete game, do the things we need to be successful.”
When all was said and done in December, the Rockets went a more than respectable 8-4-2-0, which included a stellar 5-1-1-0 record on a gruelling 10-day road trip.
The fact that the majority of the wins came without four key players in the lineup—Dillon Dube, Calvin Thurkauf, Tomas Soustal and Gordie Ballhorn—was a promising sign for the Rockets and gave Smith an indication of the depth he has at his disposal.
“(In December) I think we played a lot of complete games,” said Smith.
“Obviously with those players being away, some other players got to grow their games and get some experience in different situations. For the most part, we did a pretty good job as a team and we played with structure.
“Now it’s a matter of getting back to that on a more consistent basis and continuing that as we move along in the season.”
Among those players filling bigger roles over the last several weeks was rookie forward Nolan Foote. The 16-year-old younger brother of Cal Foote scored goals in each of the Rockets last three games and now has 16 points in his first 27 WHL games.
“Nolan is a competitive guy, he’s growing and becoming more confident with each game,” Smith said. “He missed a good portion of the start of the year (illness), but he’s really making up for missed time.
“He has good puck skills, he shoots the puck well, and he doesn’t mind the bumping and grinding style of hockey. He’s working at getting better and listens to what the coaches have to say.”
Forward Dillon Dube remains with the Canadian team which takes on Sweden Wednesday in thesemifinals in Montrea
Fellow forwards Calvin Thurkauf and Tomas Soustal are on their way back to Kelowna after their teams were eliminated Monday from the world junior championship.
Both are expected to return to the lineup Saturday when the Rockets host the Kamloops Blazers in the back end of a home-and-home set between the teams.
The Rockets will also face the Blazers Friday in Kamloops.
With 48 points apiece, the Rockets and Blazers are tied for second in the B.C. Division, eight points back of the Prince George Cougars.