The Kelowna Rockets have spent the last few weeks streaking upwards in the WHL’s Western Conference, including 4 wins on a gruelling 5 game road trip, and statement game victory over the division leading Kamloops Blazers.
Last night, the Rockets blasted 7 goals past Blazers’ goaltenders Cole Cheveldave and Taran Kozun. The 7-3 win pulled the Rockets to within four points of the Blazers, who at one point earlier this season seemed to have an unassailable lead atop the BC Division. While the pursuit of the division leaders has not been an easy mission, the Rockets have steadily closed the gap.
“(Kamloops) had such a tremendous start this year and it’s been an uphill battle for a lot of teams trying to get close to them,” said Kelowna Rockets Coach Ryan Huska. “We still have six games left against them and we’re four points back, so when we do play our head to head games they’re going to be exciting. There should be lots on the line at that time and we’ll continue to push them every chance that we get.”
That big push looked to be in trouble when the WHL schedule maker dealt the Rockets a challenging six day, five game road trip in mid December, but the team more than met the challenge. They swept through Kootenay, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer before finally posting their first loss of the road trip in Calgary.
Coach Huska was not surprised by his team’s strong effort on the road, especially after watching his team weather some difficult away games early in the season.
“In the beginning portion of our season, 11 of our first 16 games were on the road and we played in some tough buildings,” said Huska. “I thought our players did a good job of coming out of that okay. We spent a lot of time on the bus, which I think allowed our players to get to know each other. I would say that was more important for our group than our last road trip, but anytime teams go on the road to Alberta or the Eastern Conference and win 4 of 5 games, it’s important. Those aren’t easy buildings to win in and you play a lot of hockey in a short period of time, and I thought our players handled themselves very well.”
To say that the Rockets are a team of road warriors would be an oversimplification. They have also become incredibly effective on home ice, stringing together a 13 game winning streak at Prospera Place.
“Last night was our first sellout of the year, so before the game started there was a little more energy in the building and I think the players do feed off of that,” said Huska. “We’re fortunate to have a good crowd here and hopefully our play can continue to bring them into the building.”
The Rockets have now won 8 of their last 10 games. It would be easy to characterize that as a hot streak, and further argue that they are overachieving, but Coach Huska believes that his team has worked hard at elevating their game and can produce consistently at this higher level.
“I think over the course of the season so far, we’ve done a good job of raising our level of play,” said Huska. “I just don’t see us as a group that would be satisfied with where we’re at. We’ve got good leadership in our room this year and I think our players enjoy coming to the rink and working hard.”
One area where they have overachieved has been on offence. With 150 goals for on the season, the Rockets have generated the second most offence in the WHL. Only the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks have found the back of the net more often with 159 goals.
“We thought that when the season started we’d have a tough time generating offence, and that a lot of it would have to come from our back end jumping in, joining the rush or getting pucks into the offensive zone,” said Huska, “but we’ve had four lines that have been contributing for us. I think that is one of the big reasons for our success. We’re getting contributions from just about everybody throughout our lineup, and that’s why our offensive totals are more than we expected early on.”
The Rockets will try to maintain their momentum into the New Year. They face the Vancouver Giants tonight before returning home to play Everett on Sunday to wrap up 2012.