Rockets head out on the road after 4-point weekend
Rookie goalie continues to shine as captain scores game-winner
Don’t look now, but James Porter and the Kelowna Rockets are on a three-game winning streak.
Albeit, just as they head out on a tough three-game road trip — starting Wednesday in Kennewick, Wash., with a rubber match against the Tri-City Americans (9-4-2-0), who the Rockets beat 4-3 in overtime on Friday at Prospera Place after falling 2-1 in Kennewick on Oct. 17. That will be followed by a weekend doubleheader in Victoria against the B.C. Division-leading Royals (124-1-0).
Still, three straight wins is an impressive feat for Kelowna (7-5-1-1) — a first for this season, culminating with Saturday’s 4-2 victory over the visiting Prince George Cougars (5-6-2-2) in front of 4,708 fans.
“That was a huge four-point weekend for us,” said Rockets captain Cal Foote, the first star on Saturday. “Our team needed that . . . three in a row and we’re running in the right direction right now.”
That made for a successful homestand, winning three of four after dropping a 3-1 decision to the Portland Winterhawks last Friday before avenging that defeat with a 7-2 blowout the next night.
The triumph over Tri-City snapped a six-game winning streak for the Americans, who also lost 3-2 in overtime at Kamloops on Saturday night.
Kelowna followed up by improving to 3-0 against the Cougars this season, having previously scored a pair of overtime victories in Prince George, 7-6 and 4-3 on Oct. 6 and 7.
“We’ve been playing good for the past three games and it’s definitely showing,” said Porter, the second star in making his fifth straight start as a 17-year-old rookie goaltender. “We’ve been working hard as a team and our chemistry has been going up. We’re feeling good about our game right now.”
That much was evident in their play from the crease out, and the Rockets will be taking plenty of positive momentum on the road as the calendar turns to November.
What a difference a week makes — remember, this is a team that had lost five in a row and four straight at home prior to thumping Portland, which had won three consecutive games against the Rockets and arrived in Kelowna as the CHL’s top-ranked club.
“It’s important, just to stop the slide we were on,” Rockets head coach Jason Smith said of the recent success, a turnaround sparked by Porter’s performances between the pipes. “We had some stretches of games where we weren’t as good as we need to be, and I don’t think we played as well as we need to tonight, but we were able to win the game. “We just have to keep getting better as a group.”
Leif Mattson, with his third goal in as many games, Kyle Topping, with his seventh of the season on a night he was named Kelowna’s player of the month for October, Cal Foote, with his fourth standing up as the game-winner, and Carsen Twarynski, with his teamleading ninth and his sixth over the course of this winning streak, supplied the offence for Kelowna.
At the other end, Porter was the difference again. He stopped a penalty shot with the game tied 1-1 in the second period and preserved the win by turning aside another shorthanded breakaway with three minutes remaining in regulation.
“I’m feeling good, just got to keep it up,” Porter said. “Keep making the big saves and the key saves for our team.”
Vladislav Mikhalchuk, with an equalizer late in the first period, and Josh Maser, to pull Prince George within one early in the third period, replied for the Cougars, who got 26 saves from Taylor Gauthier.
Porter prevailed in the battle of first-year netminders, finishing with 27 stops.
“He’s come up huge for us a number of times, even when we weren’t winning. He’s been awesome and he continues to step up every night,” Cal Foote said of Porter, who has taken over the starter role for Kelowna — at least temporarily — since incumbent Brodan Salmond faltered and then left the team to have an injury assessed back home in Calgary.
Salmond returned to the fold for the weekend, but the Rockets stuck with the hot hand in Porter. Salmond served as backup both nights, though Smith was reluctant to declare Porter the new No. 1.
“It’s a process. He’s a young kid and obviously Brodan has been out with an injury and took some time, but he’s back now and he’s worked hard in practice,” Smith said. “We’ll move forward and we’ll see where we’re at, and we’ll make decisions as we go.”
Porter was sharp early against Prince George in an evenly-played first period, stopping Cole Moberg in all alone at 2:40 and then denying Kelowna product Max Kryski of a quality chance at 6:30. Kryski, a 17-year-old rookie left-winger, is the younger brother of former Rockets forward Jake Kryski.
After Dillon Dube hit the post on Kelowna’s first power play, Mattson opened the scoring for the Rockets on a delayed penalty, fending off a slash on a partial breakaway and slipping the puck between Gauthier’s legs at 12:13.
The Cougars responded in the final minute of the opening frame, with Mikhalchuk depositing a rebound off the rush at 19:25 after Porter stopped the initial shot by Brogan O’Brien — a former Rockets’ prospect and bantam draft pick from 2012 who is now an over-ager in the WHL.
Porter shook that off in the intermission and stoned O’Brien on the aforementioned penalty shot at 5:23 of the second period, kicking out his left pad to foil a fancy deke attempt.
“I went down a little too early and he had me, so I knew I had to do something. It worked out well,” Porter said of the game’s turning point.
The Rockets surged thanks to that save, with Topping pouncing on a rebound of Nolan Foote’s shot for the go-ahead goal at 9:04. Kelowna’s leading scorer Kole Lind started that sequence by circling Prince George’s net and centering for Foote, whose shot was stopped by Gauthier with the rebound squirting out to Topping at the far post.
Then, at 18:58, the Rockets got a late goal from Cal Foote to make it 3-1 through 40 minutes. Jack Cowell made a terrific feed to Kelowna’s top blueliner and he did the rest — faking a slapshot, stepping around a defender and firing a wrister that eluded a screened Gauthier.
Cal Foote was quick to credit assistant coach Kris Mallette for the advice in that situation.
“He told me to fake and shoot short-side,” Cal Foote revealed. “I just tried to get a shot on net and it found its way.
“Whatever shot it is, it’s important to get it on net,” he added. “Maybe at those times, the wrister is a little bit quicker. It’s just a faster shot (to get off), and with the traffic, good things can happen.”
Maser cut the deficit to 3-2 at 3:19 of the third period, redirecting O’Brien’s shot in front of Porter on P.G.’s first full power play of the night.
Conner Bruggen-Cate came close to restoring Kelowna’s two-goal lead at the seven-minute mark, blasting a shot off the post on an odd-man rush. However, he took a holding penalty in the offensive zone on his next shift, at 10:38, which made for a tense couple minutes.
Fortunately for Kelowna, the Foote brothers combined to kill it off, with Cal sacrificing his body to block a shot and Nolan later winning a board battle to clear the puck.
Then, with Kelowna on its fifth power play but Prince George proving dangerous while shorthanded all game long, Porter was forced to stop another breakaway as Kody McDonald came streaking in from centre ice. He also opted for a deke, but Porter stretched out to make the clutch save.
“They got three or four (shorthanded) breakaways and we made a mistake on every one of them, that allowed the breakaway,” Smith said. “Obviously James did a great job in net and they didn’t score, but we need to be better . . . .
“(Porter’s) played well. From the beginning, we’ve talked about competing and making saves at the right time and giving us a chance to win games. That’s what he did here tonight again.”
Moments later, on the same man advantage, Braydyn Chizen hit Kelowna’s third post of the game on a point shot through a maze of bodies.
Seemingly not getting any luck, Twarynski’s finishing touch was fluky in Kelowna’s favour, with the over-age forward simply trying to disrupt a neutral-zone pass when the puck changed course after contacting his stick blade and drifted into Prince George’s empty net at 18:32 — shortly after Gauthier headed to the bench for an extra attacker.
“I don’t think we played a full complete game and our power play failed to execute at the level we want it to, Smith said, “but it’s nice to finish off the homestand with a win, and now we’ll look forward to going and playing on the road.”
“It’s going to be a big game again (on Wednesday),” Porter added. “We’re going to have to come ready to play and just bring the same things we’ve been bringing for the past three games here.”
ICE CHIPS: Kelowna scratched G Roman Basran (affiliated player), RHD Kelvin Hair, RHD Konrad Belcourt, C Ted Brennan, LW Wil Kushniryk and LW Colum McGauley . . . . Prior to puck drop, Topping was gifted a new suit from MacDermott’s for earning the monthly award. Coming into Saturday, Topping had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 10 October games. He has been centering Lind and Nolan Foote among Kelowna’s top-six forwards. The other go-to line has featured Dube between Twarynski and Mattson since the latter returned from injury four games ago . . . . Twarynski also scored twice, including the OT winner, on Friday against Tri-City after netting a hat trick in routing Portland the previous Saturday . . . . O’Brien assisted on both Prince George goals and was named the game’s third star.
Kelowna Rockets captain Cal Foote celebrates his second-period goal against the Prince George Cougars during WHL action at Prospera Place on Saturday night.The Rockets won 4-2.