Captain Tyson Barrie and the Kelowna Rockets host the Portland Winterhawks Friday and the Medicine Hat Tigers on Saturday.

Top teams provide weekend test for Rockets

A respite from the rigours of a junior hockey season couldn’t have come at a much better time for Tyson Barrie.

Back from a four-day break, the rejuvenated Kelowna Rockets captain will lead his club into battle this weekend against two of the Western Hockey League’s top teams.

The Western Conference-leading Portland Winterhawks will stop at Prospera Place on Friday, while the fleet-footed Medicine Hat Tigers will come calling 24 hours later.

“It’s going to be a real good test for us and we’re going to find out where we stand against them,” said Barrie. “Those are two good teams are we gotta be ready for them. I’ve had a nice break and I’m ready to go.”

Barrie played in Saturday’s 8-1 victory over Kamloops, then headed home to Victoria to reload after an intense and busy month of hockey with Team Canada at the world junior championship in Buffalo.

The Rockets had their ups and downs in the Barrie’s absence—and that of head coach Ryan Huska—including a four-game losing streak to start off 2011.

But now that the dust has settled and the team’s full roster is back in place, Barrie feels good about the Rockets’ capabilities over the final 31 games of the regular season.

“We’ve struggled a bit in the New Year, but our last game against Kamloops was big for us, it was a good win,” said Barrie. “This is always a good time of year, the trade deadline has passed, and this is it…this is our team.

“I like our team, we have a real good core group and as long we continue to follow what the coaches have been preaching to us, I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.”

The Rockets and the rest of the Western Conference find themselves in the tightest race anyone in the WHL can ever remember.

A mere five points separate the last seven clubs, with every team still firmly in the playoff race.

In the B.C. Division, only four points divide the first and last-place teams.

The division champion will earn the second overall seed in the conference come the post-season.

“We’ve been saying it for a while how tight our conference is and how big every game is,” said Rockets coach Ryan Huska. “There’s an opportunity to win our division and get that second seed…every team is in it. If you don’t win, you might end up fourth of fifth and get a good American team in the first round.”

Speaking of good American teams, the Winterhawks (27-13-0-3) have slipped somewhat over the last month but are still hanging on top spot the Western Conference standings.

With skilled players like Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter providing leadership, and new acquisitions Craig Cunningham and University of Denver defenceman William Wrenn in the mix, Huska said the ‘Hawks are a talented and well-rounded team.

“They’ve strengthened their group with some of the moves they’ve made,” said Huska. “They’re deep all over the place, up front and on defense. We’ll have to try and take away as much time and space from them as we can.”

As for the Tigers (27-12-2-0), Huska expects his team to be challenged by Medicine Hat’s speed and high-tempo style.

“We’ll learn in a hurry if our team is quick enough to handle them. They’re very fast.”

The Rockets (22-19-0-0) head into the weekend in second in the B.C. Division, one point back of the Prince George Cougars and Vancouver Giants.

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