At the start of November, the Kelowna Rockets were a seemingly insurmountable 18 points in arrears of the Kamloops Blazers.
On Thursday night, a win at Prospera Place would pull the Rockets to within a mere four points of the Blazers for the WHL’s B.C. Division lead. Kelowna also has three games in hand.
The Rockets (23-10-1-1) had won 16 of their last 20 games heading into the Christmas break, while the Blazers (25-9-2-2) are a mediocre 9-9-1-1 since losing 3-0 to the Rockets on Nov. 1.
In addition, Kelowna is unbeaten in 12 straight games at Prospera Place.
“I know the players are looking forward to it,” Rockets coach Ryan Huska said of Thursday night’s matchup with the Blazers. “It’s a challenge after Christmas getting the rust out, and I think both teams will face that. Our focus has to be staying out of the penalty box and playing a good team game like we have been.”
With all four lines pulling their weight and a mostly by-committee scoring approach this season, the Rockets are second overall in goals in the WHL this season with 143.
Top-end production has come from converted defenceman-to-forward Myles Bell who leads the team with 20 goals and 48 points.
Tyson Baillie, a 17-year-old forward, has been a pleasant surprise with 12 goals in the season’s first half, while Ryan Olsen, acquired in the off-season for Shane McColgan, is second on the team with 16 tallies.
Still, veteran Zach Franko, who has added 36 points this season, said the Rockets success hasn’t been about the production of one player or another, but of the group as a whole.
“Everybody who plays is making a contribution this season,” said Franko, in his third season with the Rockets. “We have four lines, but we don’t really have a No. 1 line, there’s so much depth. It’s somebody different stepping up every night and that’s why we’ve been winning.”
The Rockets are still relatively young on defence but continue to progress quickly, with the likes of Madison Bowey, Mitchell Wheaton and Jesse Lees—all 17 years old—logging the kind of ice time more typical of seasoned WHL veterans.
And in goal, the Rockets have been rock solid thanks to the play of veteran Jordon Cooke and newly-acquired Jackson Whistle, as Kelowna sits third best overall in the WHL in goals allowed (87). Both net minders have been recovering from minor injuries over the holiday break, so the Rockets have brought in 15-year-old Jake Morrissey as an insurance policy.
The Rockets’ depth will be tested over the next week as three of their youngest players will be getting some international experience. Rourke Chartier (Team West), Austin Glover (Team West) and Riley Stadel (Team Pacific) are all in Quebec for the World Under-17 Challenge, featuring 10 teams from Canada, the U.S., Finland, Sweden and Russia.
Captain Colton Sissons
Following Thursday’s game against Kamloops, the Rockets visit Vancouver on Saturday, then will return home to face Everett on Sunday.