Rockets look to shake memory of being swept by Thunderbirds
Revenge is a strong word. Avenge might be more appropriate for the Kelowna Rockets’ mental approach to this Western Conference final rematch with the Seattle Thunderbirds. The best-of-seven, thirdround series starts tonight in Kent, Wash., with a 7:35 p.m. puck-drop.
Almost immediately after finishing off the Portland Winterhawks in five games — with a 6-2 blowout at Prospera Place last Friday — the Rockets shifted their focus to Seattle, which was minutes away from sweeping the Everett Silvertips when Kelowna advanced.
“They talked about it in the room after the game, it was the end of their season last year, and this year we want to go and get the results that are good for this group,” Rockets head coach Jason Smith told reporters in that post-game scrum.
The Thunderbirds won to remain unbeaten in these WHL playoffs — a perfect 8-0 after previously sweeping Tri-City.
The Rockets know that feeling from the losing end, having been swept by Seattle at this stage last spring.
Kelowna was the defending league champion from 2015 but had been depleted by injuries and exhausted by going the distance in defeating Kamloops and Victoria — winning both those series in overtime of the seventh-and-deciding games.
No excuses, but it was evident the Rockets were running on fumes and ran out of gas against the T-Birds. Kelowna will be fresher and healthier this time around.
“Our guys are excited about that challenge,” Smith said of facing Seattle again. “They’re an elite team that’s played well, and we’re a confident group in our room that we can play with anybody when we play the game the right way.”
Smith is new to this budding playoff rivalry as Kelowna’s first-year head coach, but he paid close attention to the Seattle games in the regular season. The Rockets won three of four and it often felt like there was more at stake than just two points in the standings. “They have a very good group of forwards, they have a good power play, and they play the game the right way,” Smith said of the Thunderbirds. “They’re well-coached (by Steve Konowalchuk), they have structure, and we’re going to have to play well.”
Reid Gardiner wasn’t part of last year’s series, either.
He only came to Kelowna in January — as a trade-deadline ringer returning from the pro ranks — but Gardiner got into two games against Seattle in February and came away with similar impressions.
“They’re a good team.They play structured, they play hard, and Seattle is never an easy place to play,” he said. “So we’re going to get a good rest and recover and regroup and go right back at it.”
Gardiner scored in both those games against the T-Birds — adding an assist in a 6-3 home win on Feb. 13 before a 5-3 loss on the road in their most recent meeting on Feb. 25. Prior to his arrival, the Rockets beat Seattle 6-1 at Prospera Place on Dec. 7 and 5-1 in Kent on Oct. 22.
Gardiner has been unstoppable in the playoffs, leading the league in goals (12) and points (22) through two rounds. He’s averaging two points per game and has scored hat- tricks in both of Kelowna’s series-clinching victories, including a four-goal, six-point performance to eliminate Portland and earn CHL player of the week honours.