The Kelowna Rockets newfound pace and depth face another crucial test tonight when the Victoria Royals arrive at Prospera Place.
Victoria is six points up on the Rockets for second place in the WHL’s B.C. Division with just six games to play.
They’ll meet tonight at 7 p.m.
“They’re a good defensive team,” Rockets forward Alex Swetlikoff said Tuesday after practice. “It’s always a tight game against them.”
The clubs have been headed in opposite directions of late. Victoria (31-24-8) has seven points from its past 10 games while the Rockets (29-27-6) have piled up 13.
If Kelowna can catch Victoria then they may also catch the Vancouver Giants (32-24-6).
Vancouver and Victoria are tied with 70 points.
The Rockets will try to replicate their results from a Feb. 21-22 Island road trip when they beat Victoria 4-3 and then lost in a shootout by the same margin.
It was head coach Kris Mallette’s first two games behind the bench after replacing Adam Foote. In the eight games since Mallette took over, Kelowna has lost just once in regulation time. Swetlikoff said the club is looser and gaining confidence with every game.
“We reset,” said the Kelowna native, who is up to 13 goals and 12 assists. “It was just kind of a fresh start for everyone. … We haven’t had too much structure, I don’t think. That’s helped us. We’re not thinking too much. We’re just out there playing. When mistakes happen, we’re not dwelling on them. We’re looking to the next play.”
The numbers seem to bear that out.
Kelowna is averaging 4.13 goals per game in the “Mallette era,” which is more than a goal per game better than their season average (2.89).
That elusive chemistry might be contributing to the offensive uptick.
Look at a combination such as Kyle Topping, Trevor Wong and Pavel Novak. That trio — acting as Kelowna’s second scoring line — has gone into production mode.
In weekend wins over Lethbridge and Seattle, for example, they combined for five goals and seven assists.
Novak said he and Topping were playing well together before Topping’s injury forced him to miss 30 games. Wong has been added to the line, and is using his speed to create chances.
“Trevor is really fast,” Novak said. “He’s working hard in the offensive zone. We have a lot of chances. I like to play with them.
“Trevor’s speed, Kyle is the playmaker and I have to score some goals.”
While Victoria has undoubtedly noticed all of this and will plan accordingly, the Royals are facing a rash of injuries themselves.
They arrive tonight with five players on the injury list, including starting goalie Shane Farkas. The Penticton native is listed as week-to-week with an upper body injury.
Not that Kelowna isn’t without it’s challenges. Starting forward Dillon Hamaliuk is back on the disabled list with a lower-body injury. He’s likely a game-time decision.
Swetlikoff said the Rockets are preparing to face Victoria’s best regardless of who is actually in the lineup. The Rockets had success in Victoria last month using their speed, and that game plan won’t change now.
“We were just trying to play fast, we were trying to pick up pucks and chip pucks out and get on the chase, use our speed,” he said. “This is a big week for us, big divisional rivals. These are huge points in the standings to determine who we play in playoffs. I think we can catch Victoria.”
AFTERBURNERS — The WHL issued a coronavirus bulletin Tuesday, saying the league is in regular contact with health officials and is urging teams to remain vigilant in regards to hygiene. They urge players to avoid handshakes between teammates, opponents and officials; for each player to have his own water bottle and towel; and to avoid high-fives, handshakes and signing autographs for fans. … Kelowna’s injury list includes F Nolan Foote (LBI, week to week), F Michael Farren (UBI, indefinite), F Liam Kindree (UBI, 5-6 weeks), Hamaliuk (LBI, day-to-day) and D Sean Comrie (UBI, 15 weeks). Kindree skated in a no-contact jersey on Tuesday. … After tonight’s game, the Rockets face the first-place Blazers in a home-and-home series beginning Friday in Kamloops.