Rock­ets look to shake mem­ory of be­ing swept by Thun­der­birds

The Daily Courier - - SPORTS - By LARRY FISHER

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.

Smith

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