Cam Hope made a bunch of moves ahead of the WHL trade deadline.
Bruce Hamilton made next to none — just one, with that acquisition, 19-year-old forward Ryan Bowen, not expected to join the Kelowna Rockets for the rest of this season.
Hope, the Victoria Royals’ general manager, continued his season-long wheeling and dealing in search of the right fits to provide secondary scoring and more sandpaper.
From August until the Jan. 10 deadline, Hope made a total of 17 trades — 12 since December — in swapping out seven of his team’s 12 forwards, along with two of six defencemen.
That’s nine of 18 skaters — essentially half his roster.
Hamilton, who owns and operates the Rockets in several roles including GM, opted to stay the course with the roster his staff has drafted and developed.
Hamilton made the big splash in recent years — landing Leon Draisaitl and Reid Gardiner ahead of the 2015 and 2017 deadlines — and some assumed he’d load up again with this likely the final junior season for Dillon Dube, Cal Foote and Kole Lind.
Instead, Hamilton stood pat and decided to give his group a vote of confidence — believing the Rockets already had enough depth at every position, when healthy, to win another B.C. Division banner and, more importantly, make a run for the Memorial Cup.
“Not every team trades away draft picks and their future every time the trade deadline comes,” rationalized Jason Smith, in his second season as the Rockets' head coach. “We like our depth in our group and the way the guys have played and competed this year. We’ve put that in their hands to continue to play well and continue to grow their games and get better.
“They’re excited about the challenge,” he added.
On Saturday night, in front of a near sellout crowd of 5,941 fans at Prospera Place, those very different approaches to achieving success were on display between two teams with a lot to prove in a first-place showdown.
Clashing for the first time since the deadline, the Rockets rewarded Hamilton’s faith by racing out to a 3-0 lead and routing the visiting Royals 8-4 to send a message loud and clear that they are still the team to beat in B.C.
“The guys were going, it was a little contagious and everyone was having fun, so it was easy to play hard,” said second-line centre Jack Cowell, who was named the game's first star with two goals.
“It was a big couple points, trying to keep the lead here in the West. It’s always huge against Victoria, one of our rivals.”
The division has become a three-horse race, but Kelowna (29-14-2-1) pulled three points ahead of Victoria (27-17-3-1) and four ahead of the Vancouver Giants (25-15-4-3), who were blanked 2-0 by Portland in Langley on Saturday night. The Rockets also have two games in hand on the Royals and one on the Giants.
Victoria came into Saturday riding a four-game winning streak since the trade deadline, including a 4-3 shootout victory over Vancouver, a fellow buyer, on Friday in Langley.
The Rockets, who improved to 4-2-0-0 since the deadline, rebounded from a 7-2 beating in Kent, Wash., on Friday at the hands of the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“We weren’t very good in Seattle, but we bounced back and had a good effort, and that’s what we needed,” said Smith. “We competed and played with the pace and energy that you have to play with to have success.”
Kelowna’s fast start against Victoria was thanks to the big three, with Lind opening the scoring three minutes 18 seconds after the opening face-off, Cal Foote making it 2-0 just over a minute later at 4:33, and Dube sniping a power-play goal at the 8:20 mark.
“You want your elite players to be elite players in big games, and in all games,” said Smith. “They got off to a good start tonight and we got momentum to start the game and we kind of followed through with the rest of the game.”
The Royals pushed back and eventually got to within 4-3 in the second period — getting three power-play goals — but the Rockets’ supporting cast proved to be the difference in blowing the game open again.
Leif Mattson scored what stood up as the winner, finishing off Nolan Foote’s shorthanded set-up with a nifty deke late in the second period, Cowell netted an insurance marker in the first minute of the third and tacked on an empty-netter, while Carsen Twarynski tallied his team-leading 30th goal of the season to round out the scoring for Kelowna, which also got a second power-play goal from Kyle Topping in the first minute of the second period to make it 4-1.
“When you’re playing a game that has a lot of special teams in stretches, you need to use your bench and our guys played well,” said Smith. “They took advantage of opportunities they got on the ice and capitalized on some chances around the net.
“Jack Cowell and Kyle Topping had a real good game from maybe a couple disappointing outings. They bounced back and really engaged in the game and skated really well and created havoc, which is great.”
On this night, the likes of Cowell, Topping, Mattson, Conner Bruggen-Cate and Nolan Foote — both with two assists — were better than Victoria’s second wave of offence.
Front-liners Matthew Phillips, with his team-leading 32nd, Tyler Soy and Dante Hannoun managed to score and match the efforts of Lind, Dube and Cal Foote.
However, the Royals’ new additions — Tanner Kaspick (two assists), Noah Gregor (one assist), Jeff De Wit, Lane Zablocki, Andrei Grishakov, Braydon Buziak (nine penalty minutes) and D-Jay Jerome (scratched) — were non-factors in finishing a combined minus-11.
By comparison, Kelowna’s aforementioned five were a combined plus-9 — led by Cowell at plus-3.
Add in Erik Gardiner and Liam Kindree — a pair of top-nine wingers recovering from injuries — and it would appear the Rockets still match-up well with Victoria through the middle-six of their forwards.
“It was nice to know we didn’t have to make those trades to keep competing and winning,” said Cowell. “It was nice to get a little confidence (boost), and obviously staying here means they believe in you, so just keep doing the same thing you’re doing.”
Igor Martynov, an import forward from Belarus, scored Victoria’s other goal on a third-period penalty shot by pulling off the same move he made here on a pre-season penalty shot on Sept. 2.
Cole Tisdale got fooled by that fancy deke — just as Roman Basran did the first time around — but the 15-year-old affiliate from Lethbridge played relatively well in making 23 saves to become the youngest goalie in franchise history to win his first WHL start.
“The way he played and competed in the net was great,” said Smith. “When your goalie gives you a chance to win the game, they’ve done their job . . . and our guys played well in front (of Tisdale).”
Of course, it's been the year of the young goaltenders here in Kelowna, with 17-year-old James Porter and 16-year-old Basran also shining as a tandem before recently going down to undisclosed injuries.
Tisdale, called up earlier in the week, made his debut Friday in relief of 19-year-old incumbent Brodan Salmond, stopping 15 of 17 shots against Seattle.
Tisdale was as shocked as anybody when the Rockets turned to him on Saturday.
“Getting the text from (assistant coach Adam Brown) this morning, he’s like ‘you’re starting tonight’ and I’m like ‘oh crap, really?’ Then it was like ‘time to do my thing,’” said Tisdale, who has been enjoying every minute — and every moment — of his stint with the Rockets.
“It was an unreal experience, I can’t really explain it. Before the game I was shaking, then after the first period I got in the groove and I was totally fine after that.”
There were more nervous moments when Victoria made it a one-goal game and got another power play, but Kelowna rallied around Tisdale.
“He played huge, he’s only 15 years old and he’s making some of the saves he’s making . . . hats off to him,” said Cowell. “We’ve gotten pretty lucky with goaltenders coming up and stepping up, playing pretty big.”
Asked about the surprising decision to start Tisdale, Smith said: “He stepped in last night and finished the game off and brought some energy and some life, and he followed through with that again tonight.”
The Rockets are now headed to Tisdale's hometown to start a three-game Alberta road trip in Lethbridge on Wednesday, followed by stops in Medicine Hat on Friday and Red Deer on Saturday.
ICE CHIPS: Kelowna scratched G Porter (upper-body, day-to-day), G Basran (lower-body, week-to-week), LW E. Gardiner (concussion, week-to-week), RW Kindree (lower-body, 4-6 weeks), RHD Kelvin Hair (upper-body, week-to-week) and LW Wil Kushniryk. . . . Griffen Outhouse stopped 32 of 39 shots for Victoria before being replaced by Dean McNabb following Cowell's empty-netter. McNabb stopped the two shots he faced. . . . The three stars were Cowell, Mattson and Tisdale.
Rockets 8, Royals 4
KELOWNA — WHL Saturday night:
1. Kelowna, Lind 22 (Bruggen-Cate, Korczak) 3:18
2. Kelowna, C. Foote 9 (Dube, Hilsendager) 4:33
3. Kelowna, Dube 21 (Lind, C. Foote) 8:20 (pp)
4. Victoria, Soy 22 (Phillips, Hannoun) 16:32 (pp)
Penalties — Soy Vic (tripping) 7:04, Jarratt Vic (kneeing) 8:57, Lind Kel (interference) 9:48, Pow Kel (interference) 16:19, Hannoun Vic (goaltender interference) 19:31.
5. Kelowna, Topping 17 (Hilsendager, Mattson) 0:31 (pp)
6. Victoria, Phillips 32 (Gregor, Kaspick) 12:23 (pp)
7. Victoria, Hannoun 20 (Phillips, Kaspick) 14:14 (pp)
8. Kelowna, Mattson 15 (N. Foote) 17:03 (sh)
Penalties — Buziak Vic (high-sticking, fighting), Hilsendager Kel (unsportsmanlike conduct, fighting) 1:19, Dube Kel (slashing) 8:54, Korczak Kel (hooking) 12:15, Dube Kel (interference) 12:32, Lind Kel (tripping) 16:44.
9. Kelowna, Cowell 9 (Lind, Bruggen-Cate) 0:16
10. Kelowna, Twarnyski 30 (N. Foote) 0:59
11. Kelowna, Cowell 10 (Lind, Ballhorn) 14:28 (en)
12. Victoria, Martynov 15, 15:38 (ps)
Penalties — Smith Vic (interference) 8:33, Buziak Vic (roughing), Pow Kel (roughing) 8:33, Chizen Kel (slashing) 12:01, Zablocki Vic (roughing) 17:30, Walford Vic (boarding, roughing, served by Phillips), Prowse Vic (roughing), Cowell Kel (roughing), Korczak Kel (roughing) 19:26.
Shots on goal by
Victoria 10 10 7 — 27
Kelowna 14 14 14 — 42
Goal (shots-saves) — Victoria: Outhouse (L,25-11-4)(39-32), McNabb (14:28 of third)(2-2); Kelowna: Tisdale (W,1-0-0).
Power plays (goals-chances) — Victoria: 3-7; Kelowna: 2-6.
Referees — Steve Papp, Colin Watt.
Linesmen — Kevin Crowell, Dustin Minty.
Attendance — 5,941.