April 15, 2017
by Regan Bartel, Rockets Broadcaster
- Chuck Kobasew. Jamie Benn. Myles Bell. Rourke Chartier. Reid Gardiner. What do all five have in common? All have the ability to shoot the puck with elite velocity. All five will undoubtedly go down as some of the best ‘pure shooters’ ever to wear a Kelowna Rockets uniform. Reid Gardiner officially joined that list last night with a 6 point game (4+2=6) in lifting his team to a 6-2 win over the Portland Winterhawks.
- Gardiner scored three of his goals on the powerplay, but all four of his goals came courtesy of an uncanny release that gives goaltenders fits. Just ask Winterhawks goaltender Cole Kehler, who saw the 21 year-old score 7 times on him in only five games. The Rockets eliminate Portland 4 games to 1 and now advance to the Western Conference final for a 4th consecutive season.
- The Winterhawks made an amazing 5 consecutive appearances in the Western Conference final. The Rockets opponent in the third round is a rematch of last year’s WCF with the Seattle Thunderbirds. The T-Birds swept the Everett Silvertips in four quick games.
- Reid Gardiner was heads and tails the best player on the ice Friday night. Without Gardiner’s wicked wrister, could the Rockets be on a bus today headed to Portland for game 6? Don’t let the 6-2 score fool you. Despite owning the opening period with a three goal outburst, the Winterhawks battled back with two goals of their own and carried the momentum into the final frame.
- The Rockets, who have been a solid third period team this season, were able to find their game and played it about as tactically perfect as you can before scoring back-to-back goals in 95 seconds to seal the win. While only registering 11 shots on goal in the final 20 minutes, the teams ‘puck management’ was much better and they pecked away at a slim one goal lead. Give the Winterhawks created for not folding though. Down 3-0 only 12 minutes in the game, it could have been lights out. The Winterhawks did not relent.
- Larry Fisher of the Kelowna Daily Courier receives credit for this gem. How good was the Rockets top line of Calvin Thurkauf, Reid Gardiner and Nick Merkley? The trio combined for 15 goals and 35 points in the five games.
- Jamie Benn is the franchise leader in points in a playoff season. The then 19 year-old had 33 playoff points in 19 games during the 2009 post season. Gardiner has 22 points after 11 post season games.
- Nick Merkley looks like Nick Merkley. The old Nick Merkley if you know what I mean? The 19 year-old was tenacious on the puck for the entire series and played a bullish game for a player who stands 5’11 and a stocky 185 pounds. I thought the Arizona Coyotes first rounder looked the part in this series with his dominant play. I can’t think of one player who consistently worked harder over the course of the 5 games in the series.
- Oh, lets don’t forget that Merkley, who missed all of last years playoffs with knee surgery, is 2nd-all time on the Kelowna Rockets playoff points leader list with 59 in 51 post season games. Merkley had 11 points in this series alone. Tyson Baillie is the franchise leader with 63 career playoff points.
- The Rockets again went with primarily four defenceman in game five. Hats off to Lucas Johansen, Devante Stephens, Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager. Those four were HUGE in games four and five and deserve much credit. I thought Johansen was wickedly good. Often appearing almost too casual, the Washington Capitals first rounder is smart with and without the puck. Johansen makes the smart plays and is not often guilty of turning over the puck.
- The biggest surprise for me continues to be the evolution of James Hilsendager. Was it a confidence issue with the Regina Pats before he was acquired in the Jonathan Smart trade in October? The 19 year-old is the most physical defender on the Rockets roster and his two massive hits early in game 5 set the tone.
- I thought Hilsendager was a spare part in the Smart deal, which included the Rockets picking up 17 year-old Eric Gardiner. Where would the Rockets be without Hilsendager’s acquisition? Something clicked in his game at some point this season and he continues to look better and better with every game.
- The Rockets power play scored 10 times in this series. It clipped along at a success rate of 37%. This series was won on the power play and the solid play of the penalty kill can’t be overlooked either. The power play proficiency will need to continue in round three, but the teams five on five play will need to generate more goals against a very good Seattle team.
- A stick tap to the Kelowna Rockets organization for awarded the Portland Winterhawks three 20 year-old’s with the three stars at the conclusion of last night’s game.
- A solid crowd last night of over 58 hundred fans at Prospera Place. I loved how they all stood up in the final minute of the game, applauding the team as they retained puck possession as time ticked down.
- The Rockets fired 200 shots at the Winterhawks net in the five games. That is an average of 40 shots per game. Goaltender Cole Kehler’s goals against average in the series was a hefty 4.35, yet he made several solid saves in the series.
- The Rockets played game four and five without defenceman Cal Foote. Foote has served two games of a three game suspension for an elbow to the chin of Winterhawks forward Skyler McKenzie. Carsen Twarynski also missed Friday’s game after serving a one game suspension after a late hit on Portland captain Keegan Iverson in game four.
- It is interesting that two teams that almost won their respective divisions are now meeting in the Western Conference final. The Rockets lost by a single point to the BC Divisional regular season champion Prince George Cougars. The T-Birds lost out by two points to U.S Division regular season champion Everett. Now the Tips and Cougars are on the outside looking in while the Rockets and T-Birds continue to play in mid April.