West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal be­gins in Seat­tle

Blue-liner will fin­ish off 3-game sus­pen­sion tonight when team­mates take on Thun­der­birds

The Daily Courier - - FRONT PAGE - By LARRY FISHER

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.”

Daily Courier file photo

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.

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