Western Conference final begins in Seattle
Blue-liner will finish off 3-game suspension tonight when teammates take on Thunderbirds
Cal Foote will make his return to the Kelowna Rockets’ lineup on Saturday night. Tonight, however, he’ll serve the third and final game of a suspension, forced to sit out Kelowna’s series opener against the Seattle Thunderbirds in the Western Conference final.
Foote has been sidelined since Game 3 of the B.C. Division final against Portland when he delivered a last-minute head shot that concussed Skyler McKenzie, the Winterhawks’ leading goal-scorer from the regular season.
It was a rare over-the-line outburst from Foote, perhaps in retaliation to McKenzie picking his pocket for a shorthanded goal the previous period or just an accumulation of frustration in what was a 4-2 defeat on April 11.
Foote plays the game hard but clean — almost too clean, according to some scouts, who would like to see a little more mean at times in the mould of his father and former NHLer, Adam.
Regardless, the Rockets rebounded without their top defenceman in routing the Winterhawks 7-2 the next night and 6-2 last Friday at Prospera Place to win that best-ofseven series in five games.
Kelowna was also missing big Braydyn Chizen on the back end, having suffered a leg injury in the same game that Foote took his checking-to-the-head penalty. Chizen’s status for tonight isn’t known.
In their absence, Devante Stephens moved up to partner with Gordie Ballhorn and also took Foote’s spot on the top powerplay unit. Stephens had been paired with Chizen further down the depth chart, but fared well in an elevated role and will likely fill that void again tonight.
“We’ve formed a pretty good chemistry out there — we can find each other and I know where he is without technically looking for him,” Ballhorn said of Foote, “but I’ve played with Devo in past games too, or penalty killing and stuff, so we know each other pretty well.
“That’s part of the game — you’ve got to adjust to new partners when guys are out of the lineup.”
The Rockets also dressed a pair of 16-yearold defencemen in Konrad Belcourt and affiliated player Kaedan Korczak — the team’s top pick in last year’s bantam draft (11th overall).
Kelowna relied heavily on the top four, with the pairing of Lucas Johansen and James Hilsendager remaining intact but taking on increased minutes as well.
“This is a good test for the rest of us, good adversity that we can overcome here,” Johansen said prior to finishing off Portland in Game 5. “Everyone can kind of play a bigger role. It’s exciting and the guys are looking forward to the challenge.
“I just try to bring my best every night,” added Johansen, a first-round NHL draft pick of the Washington Capitals last June. “Obviously losing Cal is a big piece of our team, and everybody is going to have to step up. It’s not a one-man show out there, we’re all going to work together and try to get the job done.”
Mission accomplished against the Winterhawks, but there’s still one game to go — against a different beast in the Thunderbirds, who have yet to lose a game through two rounds.
“(Foote) eats a lot of minutes, he’s playing power play and penalty kill, and he’s playing against other teams’ top lines,” Ballhorn said. “The other three guys and myself did a pretty good job of eating some of those minutes . . . .
“Hopefully we can have the same performance.”
For Belcourt and especially Korczak, it has been baptism by fire, but Rockets head coach Jason Smith has been cautious not to throw them to the wolves.
For the most part, it has been watch and learn — from the bench rather than the press box.
“There’s lots of adversity come playoff time. The younger guys didn’t really expect it to come this quickly, but it happens and everybody
has to be ready to play all the time,” said Johansen, who has been doing his part in mentoring Korczak.
“Obviously it’s a pretty tough environment to come play your first games in, but he’s handled it well.
“I pump him up as best as I can, but he’s a hockey player and he’s done this before (at lower levels). There are lots of guys in the room that he can come look to if he needs advice or anything, but he’s fine. He’s a pro like us.”
Kelowna Rocket Cal Foote knocks down Seattle Thunderbird Ryan Gropp during a WHL game at Prospera Place on Feb. 13. Foote will miss tonight’s opening game of the Western Conference final series as he sits out the final game of a three-game suspension.