Traditionally, the Tri-City Americans and Kelowna Rockets aren't considered rivals. Judging from recent history, though, they should be.
Tonight, the Rockets play host to Tri-City at Prospera Place, the first of a home-and-home series that wraps up in Kennewick, Wash., on Friday night. Both contests feature 7 p.m. starts, and the common rivalry thread between them is that Tri-City has a winning record in both rinks.
Over the last five seasons, Tri-City is 5-3 at Prospera Place and is 7-1 at home at the Toyota Center to the Rockets.
“We return a lot of offence from last season,” said Americans general manager Bob Tory, whose team should challenge for the U.S. Division pennant this season. “But we do have some holes on the back-end and we hope our younger guys step up and develop, and some guys are going to be put in new roles. But we feel we’re going to have a very competitive team. We have some areas in where we want to improve, but our strength is up front.
“We’re pretty deep on offence and we play a pretty disciplined game, an up-tempo offensive game, so we think we’re going to be very competitive this season. But every season, there’s always five or six teams in the conference who are very competitive.”
The Rockets agreed with Tory’s assessment.
“Tri-City has a lot of good, skilled forwards and they’re a team that plays a very fast game,” said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska, whose team was 2-2 against the Americans last season. “We need to make sure we’re ready to play and ready to skate with them.”
The same could be said for Tri-City (3-1-0-0). Kelowna (2-0) not only has a good mix of size and speed this season, but an abundance of skill. For example, the Rockets’ power play is an impressive 35.7 per cent (five goals on 14 chances), though that number will certainly dip in time. Brandon leads the league at 40.0 per cent (8-20), with Swift Current second at 39.1 per cent (9-23) and Kelowna third. Tri-City is 12th at 21.1 per cent (4-19).
Last season, both teams won once at home and on the road. Tri-City won 4-3 in Kelowna on Sept. 29, then lost 3-1 on March 9. Kelowna lost 1-0 at Tri-City on Oct. 1, then won 4-3 on Jan. 23.
“We know Kelowna is a very skilled team,” Tory said when asked what he knew about the Rockets. “With Bruce Hamilton and Ryan Huska, they’re going to be a hard-working team. We know their defence is very good, and they improved that the addition of Myles Bell. In goal, Adam Brown and Jordon Cooke are both excellent, and Brown has really proven himself over the last couple of seasons to be one of the elite goalies in the league.
“Kelowna has also developed some very good, young forwards, like Zach Franko, Shane McColgan and Colton Sissons, and Brett Bulmer isn’t back yet (from Minnesota’s training camp). So they’re going to be a strong team, and Kelowna is always a difficult rink to play in. It has a tremendous atmosphere with its crowd, and it’s a professionally run operation. I’d think they’d be the early favourites in the B.C. Division, but it’s still too early to figure out a pecking order.”
On Saturday, the Rockets posted a solid 6-3 victory over the visiting Vancouver Giants. Kelowna led 1-0 and 5-1 at the period breaks before Vancouver put in a good third period, outshooting the Rockets 18-3. That prompted Huska to say his team learned a good lesson in that no lead in junior hockey is safe.
On Tuesday, he echoed that statement.
“At this stage, everything’s a work in progress,” said Huska. “There are some things that aren’t consistent right now, and we want to make sure we’re consistent with the way we’re playing. We see a lot of positives from our players, where they’re starting to understand things. But we have to start seeing it over and over again so it becomes ingrained.”
One positive aspect about Saturday’s win was how well — and easy — Kelowna’s power play operated. Vancouver’s penalty-kill box was squeezed tight, and several times the Giants were caught out of position with crisp, accurate passing, which led to good scoring chances.
“I thought the power play shots pucks and moved pucks well,” said Huska. “The one thing I did like about it is that they weren’t trying to be too fancy. They were satisfied with trying to generate offence by getting pucks to the net and trying to find rebounds. We did a good job in that area, and that starts with our defencemen thinking shot instead of always trying to pass. We have a lot of options, and it’s nice. Some of our younger (defencemen), it’ll be a bit of a learning experience for them to start with, but they’re good hockey players and they’ll understand before long what type of plays they can make, what type of plays they can’t make and the different types of pressure they’re going to face from different penalty kills throughout the league. So, it’ll be a bit of a learning experience, but we feel we have different guys who we can use on the back-end this season.”
ICE CHIPS: If anything, Tri-City has been consistently great 2006-07, averaging 47.8 wins a season since then. The Americans’ record since then is an astounding 239-105-6-10. Kelowna’s record over the same span, which has just one 40-plus win season, is 185-147-11-18. . . . Kelowna’s leading scorers are Bell (0-4-4), C Cody Chikie (2-1-3), LW Carter Rigby (2-1-3), C Tyson Baillie (1-2-3) and D Damon Severson (1-2-3). Tri-City’s top scorers are LW Adam Hughesman (2-6-8), C Connor Rankin (4-2-6), LW Justin Feser (2-4-6), C Mason Wilgosh (1-4-5) and RW Patrick Holland (0-5-5). . . . Newcomers to Tri-City’s roster include D Mitch Topping of Red Deer, Alta., acquired from the Victoria Royals, plus rookie G Eric Comrie and G Ty Rimmer, acquired from the Prince George Cougars in a trade that sent over-age G Drew Owsley north plus a swap of draft picks.