Five years after last reaching the Western Hockey League’s version of the Final Four, the Kelowna Rockets are back.
The Canadian Hockey League’s No. 1 team has secured a spot in the Western Conference final series for the first time since 2009, after disposing of the Seattle Thunderbirds this week in the second round the WHL playoffs.
After bowing out in the second round of last year’s postseason, Rockets’ head coach Ryan Huska said a more experienced and committed group has pushed its game to another level in 2014.
“It’s nice to be into the conference final,” Huska said. “I think we learned a lot as a group last year, and we’ve seen our team play a more urgent style of hockey this playoff season. The guys are understanding how much harder it gets as you move along, and they’ve done a good job of making sure they’re playing the right way.”
On the heels of a dominant, record-setting 57-win regular season, the Rockets have carried that momentum into the postseason, winning eight of the first nine games.
Kelowna was especially efficient in the Seattle series, outscoring the Thunderbirds 22-11 en route to a convincing four-game sweep.
“We’re trying to play smart hockey and stay disciplined, and for the most part the guys have done a pretty good job of that,” said Huska. “We always worked hard during the regular season but didn’t always play smart. In the playoffs we’re putting those two together.”
Even in the absence of the injured Myles Bell, the Rockets have had little trouble finding offense in the playoffs. Fourteen different players have scored goals, while 20 have at least one point in the postseason.
That balance was evident again Wednesday night as five different players scored in Kelowna’s series-clinching 5-2 win over the ‘Birds.
“It’s the same thing we saw all season and that’s the strength of our team,” Huska said. “We don’t have to rely on a few players, and we get lots of help from our back end. Four lines all contributed, and that kind of attitude that everyone is part of this really helps.”
Special teams have also been key in Kelowna’s success. The Rockets have both the No. 1 power play (35 per cent) and top penalty killing record (90 per cent) among all playoff teams.
“The (Seattle) series in particular, special teams were big for us,” he said. “We had situations early on where our power play did a good job of scoring and giving us momentum. We also ran into some penalty trouble in that series, and our guys did a great job in killing just about all of them off.”
The Rockets will open the Western Conference final with the first two games at home, Friday, April 18 and Saturday, April 19 at Prospera Place.
The Rockets will take on either the defending champion Portland Winterhawks or Victoria Royals in the third round. The ‘Hawks led Victoria 3-1, with Game 5 set for Thursday night in Portland,
Either way, Huska said the Rockets are in for a battle in the conference final.
“Portland has a high octane offence and are a very skilled team,” said Huska. “Victoria checks hard and takes pride in their defensive game. Whoever we get will be a challenge and we’re going to be using our time off to rest and get ready.”
Tickets for Games 1 and 2 on the Western Conference final go on sale Friday morning.