By Larry Fisher
The Daily Courier
The stats sheet says the Kelowna Rockets need more offence.
Acting head coach Dan Lambert argues that defence is the top priority ahead of their New Year’s Day matinee on Sunday against the Calgary Hitmen. Game time is 2 p.m. at Prospera Place.
“It has start from the back end,” said Lambert after Kelowna was outscored 9-1 in consecutive losses to the Spokane Chiefs (4-1) and Tri-City Americans (5-1) in returning from their Christmas break last week. “We have to become more defence-first-minded and make sure that we don’t give the other guys any gifts. Teams are going to create (chances) and they’re going to get opportunities to score goals, but when you hand (goals) to them, it makes it tough on your team.”
Coming from a former defenceman during his playing days, that assessment is right. But Lambert was an offensive-minded blue-liner, scoring 25 goals and 102 points in 57 games while helping Swift Current win the 1989 Memorial Cup.
“We expect our key guys to play big minutes, and when you get behind the 8-ball, it’s pretty tough to come back because they need to play so many minutes,” said Lambert. “So the key to our game is actually to keep the puck out of our net.”
The Rockets (14-18-2-3) played minus eight regulars in Thursday’s lopsided loss to top-ranked Tri-City (28-7-0-0), and Kelowna will be at least six short again for Sunday.
Lambert said there’s a chance that centre Colton Heffley (lower-body) and defenceman Mitchell Chapman (flu) could return against Calgary, though winger Tyrell Goulbourne (upper-body) won’t be ready. Also sidelined with injuries are defenceman Damon Severson (upper-body) and centre Spencer Main (upper-body). Further, three 16-year-old rookies in blue-liners Jesse Lees and Madison Bowey plus centre Tyson Baillie are away competing at the World U-17 Challenge in Ontario, which wraps up on Wednesday.
In their place are four even less experienced replacements — 16-year-old defenceman Stewart Coyle, formerly of the KIJHL’s Sicamous Eagles, plus three forwards in 15-year-old midget call-ups Justin Kirkland and Ryan Donaldson, and newcomer Cole Linaker, 16, (St. Albert, AJHL).
“You can’t roll four lines when you’ve got four (affiliated players),” Lambert said. “It’s impossible, but in saying that, when we have spotted the young guys in, they’ve done a good job. They’re certainly not the issue for us not having success.”
For that, Lambert pointed the finger at Kelowna’s power play. It was 0-for-5 in Tuesday’s home loss to Spokane (17-11-2-3), then 1-for-5 against Tri-City. Making matters worse, the Rockets surrendered two straight shorthanded goals in the latter contest to break open a 1-1 tie.
“Pretty much for two games now our power play has been a bit of a momentum killer for us,” Lambert said. “I felt that even against Spokane, when we had opportunities, we just didn’t create anything.”
Problem is, aside from Severson and Bowey, Kelowna isn’t missing much from its power play, and even they play primarily on the second unit behind Kevin Smith and Myles Bell. Up front, Kelowna is still stacked with leading scorers Shane McColgan, Colton Sissons and Brett Bulmer, plus Zach Franko, Carter Rigby and Filip Vasko as a second wave.
Beyond that, Kelowna’s depth is being tested.
“Right now, yeah we have our No. 1 power-play unit, but the problem is they’re not getting pushed either,” Lambert said. “Usually you’ve got other people pushing and wanting to get out there, but we just don’t have that luxury right now. In saying that, that’s no excuse for us to be struggling. The other issue that gets involved at this point is the fact that our key players probably have to eat up too much ice-time, so when they’re on the power play, rather than outwork their penalty killers, a lot of times they go out there and try to rest. And obviously that doesn’t work.”
The Rockets got a bit of rest with two days off and a short practice on Friday in preparation for their first encounter with the Hitmen (18-16-2-1), who scored a 6-3 win over the B.C. Division-leading Blazers (25-10-1-2) on Friday night.
“We just worked on skills today,” Lambert said after Friday’s practice. “We have to get our guys feeling good about themselves, but tomorrow we’re going to get into a few more specific things and definitely do some special-teams work.
"It’s important we keep the guys upbeat and not lose sight of the fact that (Thursday) night we felt we played hard as a team. And that’s one thing we need to do at home is compete and work and then good things will happen.”