Cole Linaker and the Kelowna Rockets (right) will take on Matthew Barzal and the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL's Western Conference final beginning tonight at Prospera Place.

Rockets set to battle ‘Birds in WHL semifinal

Best-of-seven Western Conference final kicks off Friday night in Kelowna

The maximum 14 games was a little more work than Bruce Hamilton would have preferred to see his Kelowna Rockets put in over the first two rounds of the Western Hockey League playoffs.

On the other hand, the club’s president and GM said less downtime for his Rockets at this time of year is likely for the best.

“I think we’re better off with this group of players if we just get right back to work and keep things going,” said Hamilton.

“We’ve relied on our depth all winter long, and we’re going to need that again in this series.  Our fourth line will need to eat up some time, and help us spread things out. Our depth is key for us.”

With just two days off between series, the Rockets will go back to work Friday night when they open the Western Conference championship at home to the Seattle Thunderbirds. Face off at Prospera Place is 7:05 p.m.

While the Rockets needed overtime in consecutive Game 7s to advance to the third round, the Thunderbirds required just nine games to get here—a sweep of Prince George, followed by a five-game series win over Everett.

Led by N.Y. Islander’s first-round draft pick Matthew Barzal, the Thunderdbirds have been one of the WHL’s hottest teams over the last six weeks with 22 wins in their last 24 games.

“Barzal is one of the best players in the country,” Hamilton said. “We have make sure he isn’t beating us and keep him in check the best we can.

“They’ve had a good run over the last few weeks of the season and into the playoffs, so we know they’re a good team.”

Hamilton said the Thunderbirds won’t play with the same speed and tempo as the Royals, but will play a physical style and will try to disrupt the Rockets’ defense with an aggressive forecheck.

Seattle is also solid in goal, with 20-year-old Landon Bow posting a 1.42 goals against average in the postseason.

On the subject of goaltenders, Hamilton has been thrilled with the play of Michael Herringer, particularly in a tough seven-game series conference semifinal series with the Victoria Royals.

Kelowna needed the last-second heroics of Justin Kirkland to tie Game 7 Tuesday in Victoria, then Calvin Thurkauf’s overtime winner to advance to the third round.

But Hamilton credits the 20-year-old stopper for keeping his team’s season alive.

“He saved the day for us,” Hamilton said of Herringer. “We didn’t play a lick the first two periods (in Game 7) and he kept us in it. We were fortunate, we beat a very good hockey team.”

As for the Thunderbirds, coach Steve Konowalchuk said the defending champion Rockets will be his team’s toughest test yet.

“We’re happy to be where we are, no doubt, but the guys know the work they’ve done and the work they’re going to continue to have to put into it to be successful,” Konowalchuk said. “The (Rockets) have very dangerous forwards. They manage the puck well, they’re very strong on it and they work for their chances. They’re just a good team all-around.”

The Rockets and Thunderbirds split four games during WHL’s the regular season, with Kelowna winning 5-2 and 7-4, and the T-Birds winning 2-0 and 6-0.