The Border Battle continues this week for the Kelowna Rockets, but Friday’s game against the Seattle Thunderbirds will hold special significance for both squads and four players in particular.
Three of Kelowna’s four wins this season have come against U.S. Division opponents, but this will be the Rockets’ first game on American soil.
It’s also the first game against Seattle since the T-Birds and Rockets engineered a draft-day deal that saw forward Dillon Hamaliuk, defenceman Jake Lee and Kelowna-born goalie Cole Schwebius come to Canada in exchange for Conner Bruggen-Cate and three early-round draft picks.
“They’re a hungry team,” Rockets assistant coach Vern Fiddler said Tuesday after practice. “From what we’ve seen, they come pretty hard on the forecheck. They’re a hard-working team. We’ve got our work cut out for us. They’re always a big team, so we’ve got to be aware of that.”
They’re hungry because Seattle is 2-3 to start the season. They’ll likely be wary of the Rockets, too, who have scored 15 goals and surrendered just five in wins over the Spokane Chiefs, Everett Silvertips and Tri-City Americans this season.
The T’Birds, meanwhile, have lost twice to division rivals 5-1 to Spokane and 3-1 to Tri-City.
The Rockets (4-2-1) can’t get caught believing the division is easy pickings, Fiddler said.
“We’ve got to get going at the top of our game,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to create a little bit more offence five-on-five. We’ve worked on that this week in practice, but at the same time we know that we’re going to have a team that’s going to come hard at us because they haven’t had a whole bunch of success early in the year.
“They’re going to be desperate and we’ve got to be just as desperate.”
Hamaliuk said it’s a matter of Kelowna playing well against American teams rather than the division finding itself in a slump.
“I think we’re playing really well against them,” said Hamaliuk, who has four goals and four assists in seven games. “Since I played in the U.S. Division, they’re all super hard-working teams and I think if we bring it every night like I think we can do a lot, I think we can beat a lot of those teams.”
That doesn’t mean Kelowna will expect a walkthrough when they arrive in Kent, Wash., on Friday night.
The Rockets are coming off a disappointing 4-1 loss to the Cougars in Prince George last Saturday. Not only did the loss come on the heels of Kelowna’s 2-1 win from the night before, it was the Cougars’ first win of the WHL season.
“Obviously they were going to bring it, and we knew that,” Hamaliuk said. “Things just didn’t really go our way that game.”
P.G. scored twice on three power-play chances and outshot the Rockets 32-27. The Rockets went just 1-for-5 with an extra attacker.
Fiddler said the Rockets were better than it appeared — P.G. scored twice into an empty net — but that doesn’t meant they didn’t see mistakes than need fixing.
“At times we took some long shifts and maybe ran out of gas,” he said. “But for the first two periods I thought we dictated play and we out-chanced them. We have to probably be a little bit better on special teams. Our power play has to get going and our (penalty kill) has to be a little bit stronger.”
It could be another challenging weekend for Kelowna. After playing in Seattle on Friday, they’ll board the bus and head home Saturday night to host the Kamloops Blazers (3-4-0).
The Blazers appear to be ironing out their game. After starting the season 0-3, they’ve enjoyed big wins since, namely an 8-1 drubbing of Seattle and a convincing 6-2 decision against the Vancouver Giants.
The Kamloops front office has also been busy. After trading for Saskatoon sniper Ryan Hughes, they then added sturdy, veteran defenceman Max Martin from the Prince Albert Raiders. Hamaliuk admitted the Rockets have kept watch of the moves — “a little bit, yeah” — but aren’t worrying about the Blazers.
“I think we’ve got a really good team here,” he said. “Whatever they do, I still think that we’d be able to take them.”