Colton Sissons should be back in the Kelowna Rockets' lineup tonight.
According to head coach Ryan Huska, Kelowna's captain and top-line centre was healthy enough to suit up Thursday and Friday but was held out for extra practice to get his conditioning and timing up to snuff after missing a calendar month with an undisclosed upper-body injury believed to be a concussion.
The Rockets won both those games without Sissons - 7-3 over Kamloops and 5-3 over Vancouver - and went 8-2-0-0 throughout his absence since getting hurt in a 3-2 home win over Moose Jaw on Nov. 30.
Despite that success, Sissons will be a welcome addition tonight when the Rockets (25-10-1-1) shoot for their 14th straight home win against the visiting Everett Silvertips (15-22-0-2), who edged the Seattle Thunderbirds 2-1 in overtime on Saturday night, while Kelowna was idle.
"His leadership is the piece that is the most valuable for us," Huska said of Sissons' pending return. "He works very hard when he's on the ice, and the way he plays and competes is contagious.
"That's going to be the biggest thing he'll bring to the table. His challenge is to make sure he keeps his shifts in line and keeps his game simple to start with and doesn't try to do too much because he has been off for quite a while, so there will be a little bit of rust."
Sissons has been skating for a couple weeks, including practising with his former midget team, the Vancouver Northwest Giants, during the Christmas break.
The injury cost Sissons a shot at representing Canada at the world juniors, as he was unable to attend the team's selection camp in Calgary.
A second-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators in June, the 19-year-old North Vancouver native had 10 goals and 27 points in 27 games before being hurt.
As of Friday night, Huska was still uncertain where Sissons would slot into the depth chart. He had been skating between leading scorer Myles Bell and over-age forward Dylen McKinlay with the trio developing great chemistry, but Bell has since been clicking with Ryan Olsen and Zach Franko and also producing results.
"(Sissons) has been in and out of different lines this week in practice," Huska said. "We have some decisions to make, but the guys have played well in Colton's absence.
"A lot of different guys have stepped up and that's good because it gives us some options to use."
Speaking of stepping up in one's absence, Jackson Whistle has filled in admirably for starting goaltender Jordon Cooke, who could also return as early as tonight. Cooke suffered a lower-body injury in a 5-2 win at Medicine Hat on Dec. 14 and was seen wearing a walking boot on his left foot after Thursday's home victory over Kamloops.
Whistle has won three of four starts since Cooke went down, improving his record to 9-2-0-0 on the season with a 1.94 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.
The latter statistics both rank Whistle third among WHL goaltending leaders, though he hasn't yet played enough minutes to reach that list.
Cooke, a 19-year-old from Leduc, Alta., in his third season with the Rockets, is ranked seventh in goals-against average (2.56) and tied for 13th in save percentage (.906). He's also tied for eighth in wins with 16 and tied for third in shutouts with three.
But with Whistle's emergence and consistency, there's healthy competition brewing between the pipes in Kelowna.
"He's given us a chance every time he's played," Huska said of Whistle, 17, of West Kelowna. "There hasn't been a game where he's really struggled. It gives our players that comfortable feeling knowing that whoever is in the net is going to give them an opportunity to win. It's great for both of our goaltenders that each of them is pushing and looking good for more starts."
While Thursday's lopsided win over Kamloops meant more to Kelowna - in terms of standings - Friday's road victory over Vancouver had added significance for Whistle. He played for Vancouver last season but was traded from the Giants to the Rockets during training camp in September.
"It's exciting for him," Huska said after Whistle stopped 24 of 27 shots in front of 9,414 fans at Pacific Coliseum. "I know he wanted to play the first time we played Vancouver, but he got his opportunity tonight and I thought he did a good job with it.
"Any time you play against your old team, it's typically a special night and the player wants to do a good job, and Jackson did that for us."
Overall, Friday's effort wasn't great as the Rockets were outshot 23-8 through two periods and only earned the two points thanks to some fortuitous bounces that resulted in goals.
"These games, like tonight, they are difficult after an emotional win the night before and being the first few back after the Christmas break," Huska said. "I liked our first and third periods. I thought we had a real rough second period, but our players responded in the third and they found a way to win."
McKinlay and fellow over-age forward Cody Fowlie each scored twice to lead Kelowna, and Tyrell Goulbourne had the other goal as the team continues to get contributions from everybody.
"They competed very hard and you need that from your older guys," Huska said. "You need them to step up, and you can't rely on Myles or Zach or Ryan to generate offence all the time. It was great to see them step up."
That win brought second-place Kelowna within two points of top-ranked Kamloops (25-10-2-2) in B.C. Division standings, with two games in hand.
ICE CHIPS: Tonight's game will also serve as a fundraiser for the Kelowna Food Bank with fans encouraged to bring non-perishable food items for donation. . . . Coming off their first sellout crowd of the season with 6,257 fans attending Thursday's win over Kamloops, the Rockets said last night that there were still several tickets available for today's game.