Justin Kirkland (right) and the Kelowna Rockets will host Lucas Nickles and the Tri-City Americans Saturday in Game 1 of their WHL first-round playoff series.

Rockets not selling Ams short in WHL playoff opener

Kelowna, the CHL's No. 1 team is heavily favoured, but Tri-City will try to counter with strong goaltending

On paper, there is no bigger mismatch in the opening round of the Western Hockey League playoffs.

The Kelowna Rockets, the CHL’s No. 1 team, finished 50 points clear of their first-round opponents, the Tri-City Americans, during the regular season.

Factor in a four-game sweep by the Rockets over the Ams during the regular campaign—by a combined score of 20-5—and the odds are undeniably stacked against Tri-City.

Still, Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton has watched too many WHL playoff series over the last two decades to make any assumptions before the puck is even dropped.

With 18-year-old standout Eric Comrie protecting the Americans’ net, Hamilton said classifying the Americans as a pushover would be a sizable mistake.

“They have arguably the best goalie in the league,” Hamilton said of Comrie. “In playoffs, goaltending wins and that’s going to be the difference here. We’ve got to get some traffic in front of him and get pucks behind him. They’re the kind of team that the longer they hang around, the bigger the problem. We’ve got to play hard and physical, and make it difficult for him to see shots.”

Comrie played just once against the Rockets during the regular season, a 4-3 shootout win for Kelowna on Feb. 26 in Kennewick, Wash.

As for the numbers, stats, and results from the regular season—including a club-record 57 wins—Rockets head coach Ryan Huska says simply toss them all out the window.

“You say mismatch, but at this time of the year everybody is even,” Huska said. “We’ve talked before that nobody cares about the regular season, it means nothing now.

“They have a very good hockey team and their leader is their goaltender,” he added. “We’re going to be challenged to generate offence against him, it’s important for us to make him work.”

Just a season ago, the Rockets created some added first-round drama for themselves by losing the first three games of their series against the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Kelowna battled back to win the next four to take the series in seven, but expended plenty of energy in the process and was unable to move beyond the second round. The Rockets were also without their injured captain and inspirational leader, Colton Sissons, for the duration of the 2012-13 playoffs.

A year later, with a mostly healthy roster along with wisdom gained from the near-defeat last March, centre Rourke Chartier said the Rockets should be better prepared for the 2014 postseason.

“After last year we know we can’t take anyone lightly, but at the same time we’ve got to be confident in who we are and what we can bring,” said Chartier. “I think as long as we bring our A game we should be all right.”

Added Hamilton: “We went into last year’s series in a mindset that wasn’t right, we were pretty banged up. Most of these kids here went through that last year. But I still don’t think we can sell these guys short.”

Kelowna expects centre Tyson Baillie back in the lineup for the playoff opener on Saturday. The Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., native has been sidelined since Feb. 10 with a leg injury.

According to Hamilton, the full week off between the end of the regular season and the playoffs has been a welcome respite for the Rockets who are using the time to heal, rest and reload for the job ahead.

“We had a terrible schedule at times this year, like a lot of teams did, so our guys really needed a break,” said Hamilton. “They need time to take care of some bumps and bruises, so the more rest we get the better.”

The Rockets and Americans open their best-of-seven Western Conference quarter final series Saturday, 7:05 p.m., at Prospera Place. Game 2 goes Sunday in Kelowna at 5:05 p.m. Game 4 goes Tuesday in Kennewick, Wash.

The other first round series in the Western Conference feature Portland against Vancouver, Victoria playing Everett, and Seattle taking on Spokane.