MacKenzie Johnston (left) and the Kelowna Rockets meet Kelowna native Justin Hickman and the Seattle Thunderbirds in the opening round of the WHL playoffs.

MacKenzie Johnston (left) and the Kelowna Rockets meet Kelowna native Justin Hickman and the Seattle Thunderbirds in the opening round of the WHL playoffs.

Rockets not looking past underdog Seattle

Kelowna finished 50 points ahead of Thunderbirds during the season, but are expecting their opponents to battle hard in WHL playoffs

On paper, it’s a mismatch.

But don’t expect the Kelowna Rockets to be mesmerized by the numbers on the eve of their WHL opening round playoff series with the Seattle Thunderbirds.

The Rockets (52-16-3-1), seeded second in the Western Conference, finished 50 points ahead of the seventh-seeded Thunderbirds (24-38-7-3) during the regular season.

Kelowna took three of four regular season meetings, outscoring the T’Birds 18-8. However, Seattle did win once at home, while pushing the Rockets to overtime in the other meeting.

It was a vastly different story at Prospera Place where the Rockets dominated in 8-0 and 4-1 wins.

While the Rockets are understandably considered the heavy favourites, head coach Ryan Huska insists that will have no bearing on the way his club prepares for or treats its first-round opponent.

“We’ve never been a team that’s looked at things that way, this is a whole new season,” said Huska. “Seattle’s a team that played us hard all year and we’re expecting them to do the same. They have a lot of talent in their group up front, some good young defencemen and a solid goaltender, so when you come to this time of the year what happens beforehand is washed away. You have to be sharp and focused for Game 1.”

Game 1 of the best-of seven series goes Friday at Prospera Place, with Game 2 set for Saturday night. Games 3 and 4 will be played next Tuesday and Wednesday in Kent, Wash.

While the Rockets roll four lines and count on scoring from each, the Thunderbirds rely generally on one line for offence, which includes 30-goal scorer Roberts Lipsbergs.

The T’Birds are also a relatively young team, with four 17-year-olds on defense.

Due to Kelowna’s depth at all positions, Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk admits the Thunderbirds are facing a tough climb against their first round opponent.

“The main thing is that our guys go out and have fun,” said Konowalchuk. “It’s a new experience for a lot of them, we’re a pretty young team.

“Kelowna has a very deep team, they’ve had a very good year, they compete hard and everybody chips in,” he added. “We have to make sure each of our lines competes against each of theirs, that we be physical and finish our checks. We have our work cut out for us.”

While Rockets captain Colton Sissons will be sidelined for the next eight to 12 weeks with an upper body injury, 20-year-old forward JT Barnett will return to the lineup for the start of the post-season. Barnett missed the final game of the regular season due to illness.

 

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