Friday Night Hockey Preview: Rockets vs. Blazers

Tyson Baillie leads the Rockets in scoring with 86 points. (WHL Images)

Friday Night Hockey returns to the Western Hockey League for a battle of B.C. division rivals as the Kamloops Blazers play host to the Kelowna Rockets.

Kamloops is in a dog fight for a playoff spot and has two options in that regard: sneak up on Prince George and capture third spot in the division or attempt to hold off the Tri-City Americans for a wildcard spot. Things are a little different for the Rockets, who continue to keep the train rolling in an attempt to capture yet another division title. Currently Kelowna trails Victoria with two games at hand.

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Kelowna Rockets

The Rockets have experienced two key injuries: goaltender Jackson Whistle, who will undergo season-ending hip surgery, and Nick Merkley, who suffered a torn ACL. Both players were key in helping the Rockets win an Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2015 and ultimately come within a goal of winning the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Having said that, the Rockets are 9-2 without Merkley.

The goaltending situation was turned over to Michael Herringer at the start of the calendar year. Since the injury to Whistle, Herringer has played in all but three of Kelowna’s 26 games. Despite pedestrian numbers, Herringer is finding a way to win games. At one point he played in 18 straight before giving way to Brodan Salmond for a few spot starts. Getting Salmond in goal while chasing down a division title will be a challenge that may ultimately affect Herringer’s fatigue level in the playoffs.


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Defensively, Kelowna has spent the season adjusting to a younger, more inexperienced group. While there’ve been some leaks, the group has not burst. Draft-eligible Lucas Johansen had a fabulous February averaging a point per game. Joe Gatenby is a fine-skating, quiet, minute eater. Devante Stephens has played in every game and is learning what it’s like to manage top-four minutes. Cal Foote has the world by the tail and there is no limit to his potential. Rounding out the top six are rookies Jonathan Smart and late bloomer Braydyn Chizen, who’s starting to draw NHL attention. Gordie Ballhorn has missed five games with an upper body issue.

Kelowna Rockets            
44-16-3-0 (19-12-1-0 Road) 3W, 2nd BC Division, 2nd Western Conference, 7th BMO Top 10            
             
Individual Stats            
Top Scorers GP G A PTS Note  
Tyson Baillie 61 37 49 86 4th WHL Pts  
Justin Kirkland 60 26 33 59    
Dilon Dube 56 23 24 57    
Nick Merkley 43 17 31 48    
Cole Linaker 61 16 27 43    
             
In Goal            
Michael Herringer (23-9-1-0, 3.17, .901%)            
             
Team Stats     Rank      
PP 54/247=21.9%   7th      
PK 55/277=80.1%   9th      
GF/gm 3.65   4th      
GA/gm 2.98   6th    

Up front, several Rockets are making up for the loss of Merkley. Tyson Baillie always produces and takes an eight-game point-scoring streak into Friday night. Rourke Chartier can explode at any given time. Justin Kirkland has played with more urgency and bite to his game, and he’s used his big shot more this season. Cole Linaker is ramping up his game towards a fourth straight playoff appearance. Imports Tomas Soustal and Calvin Thurkauf have almost identical point totals. Draft eligible Dillon Dube is over a point per game and rookie Kole Lind has all 36 points at even strength.

NHL Drafted/Signed Players
Nick Merkley (ARI, 30th 2015)
Justin Kirkland (NSH, 62nd 2014)
Devante Stephens (BUF, 122nd 2015)
Rourke Chartier (SJ, 149th 2014

NHL Central Scouting Midterm Rankings
Dillon Dube, No. 35
Lucas Johansen, No. 38
Tomas Soustal, No. 152

Under The Radar
Kole Lind got a taste of what it’s like to be on a championship team with a call up last season.

Kamloops Blazers

Kamloops has had an interesting season in that general manager Craig Bonner moved on to a pro opportunity, while the Blazers turned back the clock bringing in former GM Stu MacGregor. He is a Kamloops resident who has equal knowledge of the market as he does the ownership and coaching staff. He brings a wealth of pro knowledge having most recently been the head scout for the Edmonton Oilers.

The Blazers have Connor Ingram in goal. He routinely sees 33 or more shots per game and that has helped his save percentage. On most nights, he gives Kamloops a chance to win, but in order for the Blazers to wrap up a divisional playoff spot, he will likely have to steal a few games as most of the Blazers’ remaining schedule includes teams they are battling with for playoff position.

Kamloops Blazers          
29-25-5-4 (16-10-4-2,) L, 4th B.C. Division, 8th Western Conference          
           
Individual Stats          
Top Scorers GP G A PTS Note
Collin Shirley 63 33 37 70 18th WHL Pts
Matt Needham 58 20 36 56  
Gage Quinney 47 25 28 53  
Deven Sideroff 54 18 34 52  
Matt Revel 58 18 27 45  
           
In Goal          
Connor Ingram (26-15-5-4, 2.77, .917%)          
           
Team Stats     Rank    
PP 46/238=19.3%   12th    
PK 39/213=81.7%   5th    
GF/gm 3.25   11th    
GA/gm 3.25   14th  

Kamloops has leaned on overager and New Jersey prospect Ryan Rehill and first-year draft eligible Dawson Davidson to provide scoring from the back end. Dallas Valentine and Ondrej Vala provide size. Nolan Kneed and Conner McDonald represent the future.

Up front, Deven Sideroff is an Anaheim prospect with speed to burn. He is particularly useful while shorthanded. Collin Shirley has been a man on a mission and his five-point performance over two Canada-Russia games in November were surprising to everyone but Blazers’ fans, who have watched him do it all season long.

Gage Quinney has benefitted from opportunity, playing higher up in the Blazers lineup than where he was in Kelowna. He has almost as many goals with Kamloops as he had in two previous seasons with Kelowna and Prince Albert combined. Matt Needham and Matt Revel have combined for over 100 points.

Kamloops is a team that requires balanced scoring, and elevated powerplay success will aid in that regard. Rookie Garrett Pilon has had a fine rookie season. Overall, it’s a young group that leans on its veterans while the youth develops.

NHL Drafted/Signed Players
Deven Sideroff (ANA, 84th 2015)
Ryan Rehill (NJ, 131st 2014)

NHL Central Scouting Midterm Rankings
Ondrej Vala, No. 70
Garrett Pilon, No. 187
Dawson Davidson, No. 197
Connor Ingram #12 goalies

Under The Radar
Dawson Davidson earned Telus Cup top defenceman honours in 2014. He’s taken his point producing ways into the WHL without sacrificing responsibilities in his own end. Has high hockey IQ and is a slick puck mover.