The Kelowna Rockets rang in the New Year by ringing up another disappointing loss.
Brooks Macek scored early for Calgary, goalie Chris Driedger had an efficient outing, and the Hitmen blanked the Rockets 2-0 in WHL action on Sunday afternoon at Prospera Place. The loss was Kelowna’s third in a row, with the Rockets having been outscored 11-2 in that span.
While that’s certainly a concerning statistic, what made Sunday’s result disappointing wasn’t the final score. Rather, it was how, during the third period with victory still possible, Calgary elevated its game while Kelowna didn’t.
"If you look at the first period, we gener-ated 15 shots, and I liked that part," said Rockets acting head coach Dan Lambert. "They had 17 shots, but they also had a long 5-on-3 power play and a couple of other power plays as well. The only thing I didn’t like about our first period is that we didn’t generate enough traffic in front of the net.
"We made it too easy for their goaltender, and with a goalie like that, you have to have traffic in front of him. You’re not going to beat him with clean shots from the point or from the half-wall. So that was an area I thought we needed to be better in the first. Then, after that, I thought . . . I don’t know what it was; our effort wasn’t quite the same. Once they (got up 2-0), it was like ’Oh well, here we go again’ and feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s not good enough. We need our older guys to step it up, we need our power play to step it up and be better."
Alex Gogolev, late in the second period, also scored for Calgary (19-16-2-1), which led 1-0 and 2-0 at the period breaks. Driedger made 27 saves for the Hitmen, who are now 2-1 on a five-game B.C. road trip, including a 6-3 win over Kamloops on Friday. Jordon Cooke made 33 saves for Kelowna (14-19-2-3), which suffered its second shutout loss of the season.
"It’s definitely a tough moment for us," said Cooke, who was, by far, Kelowna’s best player. "We’re trying to keep our game simple, try to funnel shots from anywhere, but that was our problem: We didn’t get enough shots and it showed on the scoreboard."
Asked what it’s going to take for Kelowna to turn the corner on its inconsistencies, Cooke gave a simple answer: "We’re going to have to start playing as a team. There’s moments where we want to do it ourselves and it’s not working for us right now."
At the other end, Driedger was all smiles after earning his first WHL shutout. And he did so without having to make a flashy save in gobbling up shot after shot while also keeping rebounds to an absolute minimum.
"Our defence played a fantastic game and that made it easy for me," stated Driedger, a 6-foot-2, 17-year-old from Winnipeg who’s in his second WHL season. "Getting the shutout, it feels amazing."
Driedger said the only time he felt secure in earning the shutout was with 2.3 seconds remaining in the game with a neutral-zone faceoff.
"I was looking at the scoreclock and the faceoff was outside the zone," said Driedger, who also played last season with Tri-City. "I was pretty excited, but then I forced myself to stay focused. It was tough, but I had a game earlier where I thought I had a shutout until seven minutes left, so I didn’t want to let up."
Calgary opened the scoring early in the first period, Macek with a blistering slapshot from the high slot that clanged off the crossbar, then in. Scored 72 seconds after the opening faceoff, Macek’s marker came after a full minute of dominating pressure by the Hitmen in the Rockets’ zone.
"I was very happy with our start," said Calgary coach Mike Williamson. "Our guys looked focused and ready and did a lot of simple things. We were rewarded with the goal. We had a five-minute stretch in the first period where we got away from that, and Kelowna had some great chances, but Driedger was exceptional tonight. He was seeing the puck and was really tracking it well."
The game’s second goal came late in the second following a turnover by the Rockets in their zone. Jimmy Bubnick picked off a poor pass at the left faceoff dot, then dished off to Gogolev, who then cut to the crease and scored on the backhand with 28.5 seconds remaining in the frame.
Clutch goal that it was, the game’s turning point came in the first, when, odd as it sounds, the Rockets killed off a 5-on-3 Calgary power play. The building came alive with cheers, which shortly went silent as Kelowna failed to build any energy off its penalty-killing efforts.
The loud-turned-silent scenario was repeated minutes later when Tyrell Goulbourne got the better of former Rocket Collin Bowman in a brief fight.
"I thought (our emotion would jump) too," said Lambert. "Goulbourne steps up and fights a 20-year-old and it was a great penalty kill. Cooke was probably our best penalty killer in that situation, and you need your goalie to be, but there wasn’t enough push after that. It seems like every time we need a push, it’s an effort and the guys don’t have that right now. Then you make one mistake - like the one at the end of the second period - and the puck is in your net again. I’m not sure if the guys have a lot of belief in that we can come back when it’s 2-0. And I’m not sure why because it’s just two shots away."
Asked if the team is lacking confidence, Lambert said it’s fair comment.
"When you score two goals in three games, I don’t think there’s a lot of confidence to be had," he said. "But in saying that, it’s no excuse. You have to keep working and working the right way."
The Hitmen did everything right on Sunday, and, if they’re consistent with their effort, could turn heads in the Eastern Conference come playoff time.
"We really have to build on this," said Williamson, whose team sports one of the biggest blue-lines to play in Prospera Place this season. "We’ve kind of felt this way a few times this season but haven’t sustained it. So we have to continue to build and get better. When we work as hard as we did (Sunday), and get the contributions we did, it’s a lot easier to play."
"It’s always nice to come back to your hometown and get a win," added Hitmen captain and Kelowna product Cody Sylvester. "Every line on our team is playing well right now. From our first to our fourth, there’s really no differences between them. If we keep going like this, we’ll keep stringing wins together."
SCRATCHES - Kelowna: Head coach Ryan Huska (assistant coach for Canada at WJHC), D Jesse Lees (World U-17 Challenge), D Madison Bowey (U-17), D Damon Severson (upper body), C Spencer Main (concussion), Justin Kirkland, Tyson Baillie (U-17) and Cole Linaker. Calgary: D Spencer Humphries (upper body), C Victor Rask (WJHC, Sweden), C Greg Chase (U-17) and Josh Thrower.