Ryan Huska insisted this is "just another weekend."
Seth Jones admitted it has held more meaning to him.
With records and rankings at stake, the Kelowna Rockets - coached by Huska - will host the Portland Winterhawks - featuring Jones, a talented American-born defenceman and top NHL draft prospect -Â tonight and Saturday in 7 p.m. puck-drops at Prospera Place.
"Kelowna has been playing phenomenal lately, so this has been a pretty important date on our calendar," Jones said as he watched Kelowna practise Thursday.
The weekend series will be significant for both teams on several fronts, but it won't be a showdown for first-place overall. The second-place Rockets (40-11-3-1) were shut out 5-0 in Spokane on Wednesday and failed to close the five-point gap on the top-ranked Winterhawks (43-8-1-2), who also fell 4-3 at home to Calgary the same night.
Kelowna can, however, match a franchise record for consecutive home wins tonight - equaling the 24 straight set in 1992-93 while based in Tacoma, Wash.
The Rockets, who relocated to the Okanagan in the summer of 1995, have already surpassed the Kelowna mark of 18 set in 2002-03, but a weekend sweep of visiting Portland would be history in the making.
Further, a sweep for Kelowna would likely shake up the CHL rankings, where the Winter-hawks are No. 1 and the Rockets are No. 4.
Oh, and let's not forget the Winterhawks have eliminated the Rockets from playoff contention the past two seasons.
"I think it gets blown way out of proportion by the media," Huska deadpanned. "This is two of 72 (games in the regular-season schedule), and that's the reality of it.
"Over the course of the year, so far, I think we've proven ourselves to be a good hockey team and I don't necessarily think this is the be-all and end-all. But there are two very good hockey teams that are going to be playing a couple games here, and it should be entertaining to watch for the fans."
That much is for certain. But Kelowna's players weren't as quick to dismiss the magnitude of this matchup - or measuring stick, as many of them called it.
"It's one of the weekends that we've been looking forward to for a long time now. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't," said Zach Franko, Kelowna's second-leading scorer with 59 points through 53 games. "Any time you can get the best team in the league coming into your building, it's pretty exciting. They have some high-end skill over there, and we've got some high-end skill here too, so it's going to be fun for sure."
On a collision course since Christmas, Kelowna has earned points in 19 of 20 games following the holiday break - Wednesday's loss its first in regulation, to go with two overtime defeats.
Portland has been almost as good, picking up points in 17 of 19 games over the same span - Wednesday's setback ending an eight-game winning streak, with only one other regulation loss and a shootout defeat as blemishes since Christmas.
Kelowna's home dominance is almost unprecedented - 24-2 overall at Prospera Place this season, including a 23-game winning streak dating back to Oct. 10.
"It's another thing that we haven't talked about in our dressing room," Huska said. "It's more so that we're trying to be better each and every night, and that means we have to be better than we were last time at home, and, in particular, last time on the road, which wasn't a very good effort in Spokane (on Wednesday)."
To that end, his players are drinking the Kool-Aid and towing the party line.
"We've been hearing that the whole year, about the records and stuff like that," Franko said. "That'd be nice, but, at the end of the day, records aren't championships. For us, a championship is what we want and we just have to keep working hard towards that. If we do that, good things will come."
It was more of the same when addressing the potential impact on the CHL rankings.
"Rankings are nice and everything, but we just have to keep it going," Franko continued. "Playoffs aren't won in the middle of February; they are won in May and in April. This is a huge test for us; they're the best team in the country, and that's what we want to be, ultimately, at the end of the year. To get there, we have to beat them."
That familiarity factor from past playoffs also weighed on the minds of some, including third-year defenceman Damon Severson.
"It leaves a bit of a bitter taste in your mouth from last year, and even the year before that," he said. "We came out a little flat (in Spokane), maybe looking forward to this weekend too much. In the big picture, it doesn't really mean too much. But at the same time, we definitely want to keep our streak alive here at home. And we want to keep the fans impressed here, and to prove some people wrong that expect us to be down in these games."
Added Franko: "Any time you get a chance to play a team that's knocked you out the past two years, you want to take advantage of it. For us, it's all about coming out with a bang and hopefully getting the wins."
Jones is new to the WHL this year and hasn't fully experienced the Kelowna-Portland rivalry. In fact, he's only played one game against the Rockets to date, having to miss the second of a two-game set in Portland to attend the U.S. Top Prospects Game in Buffalo. Jones was in the lineup for Portland's 1-0 victory on Sept. 28, but absent for Kelowna's 4-3 win on Sept. 29.
"From what I remember, they are a fast, skilled team, and we expect them to move the puck well," Jones said of the Rockets. "They score a lot of goals. I think they have the most goals scored in the league this year (actually second to Portland after Wednesday's results, 245-244). So our goal is just to get pucks deep on them and not turn it over or let them create offensive chances."
ICE CHIPS: Kelowna fans are being asked to wear white for tonight's game for a 'White Out.' . . . As of Wednesday, the team said that close to 1,000 tickets remained available for both games.
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