Most of the hockey world viewed the Kelowna Rockets as decisive underdogs in their opening round playoff series against the Everett Silvertips.
But with 100 more man games of playoff experience under their belts, the Western Hockey League champs proved that regular season numbers can mean next to nothing.
The sixth-place Rockets bucked the odds this week by knocking off the third-place ‘Tips in seven games to move on to the second round of the WHL playoffs.
Mark Guggenberger made 40 saves to backstop the Rockets to a 2-1 series-clincher Monday night at the ever-hostile Comcast Centre in Everett.
Kelowna will now take on the Tri-City Americans in the Western Conference semifinal beginning Friday night in Kennewick, Wash.
The Rockets, who finished 11 wins and 21 points behind Everett during the regular season, rebounded from a 2-0 series deficit to win their fifth straight WHL playoff series dating back to last May.
Head coach Ryan Huska said a finally-healthy Rockets squad never once felt overmatched by the ‘Tips.
“At the beginning of the series not a lot of people gave us a chance against Everett,” said Huska. “But we didn’t feel like we were an underdog at all. Earlier in the year we had so many problems with injuries, we probably would have finished a lot higher had we been healthy. The guys were confident all along and that’s why they didn’t sway when we got down in the series.
“In the end,” added Huska, “our guys were able to draw on their experience and I think that’s where we had a leg up on Everett. It comes down to understanding how hard it is to win and a lot of our guys have experienced that.”
On the subject of experience, the Rockets called on the 21-year-old Guggenberger to carry the load in net after replacing Adam Brown early in Game 3.
Huska said the 6-foot-3 Minnesota native was at his best in the series clincher on Monday.
“We challenged Mark to be our best player on the ice and he was by far,” said Huska. “We wanted him to make sure he was the difference…he was very good for us and a big reason we’re in the second round.”
On the offensive side of the ledger, Tyson Barrie was his usual productive self leading the Rockets with two goals and nine points in the series.
Forward Geordie Wudrick enjoyed the most prolific goal-scoring outburst of his WHL career with eight goals in seven games.
The Rockets, however, will take little time to savour their success as they battle the No. 1 seeded Americans this weekend in Tri-City.
The Ams, who are fresh of a six-game series win over the Chilliwack Bruins, topped the Western Conference in goals this season with 272.
“They have very good speed and a lot of skill on that team,” said Huska. “We’ll have to find a way to slow them down and limit their chances as much as possible.”
Rocket Shots…Rockets defenceman Tyson Barrie is the Western Hockey League’s player of the week. The 18-year-old Victoria native scored two goals and added five assists in the first six games of Kelowna’s first-round playoff series with Everett.