Damon Severson and the Kelowna Rockets have a lot to celebrate this year (WHL Photo)
By Andrew Eide
After 72 regular season games and one playoff round we are right back where we left off last year.
The Kelowna Rockets and the Seattle Thunderbirds are preparing for another playoff battle with even more on the line this year. The winner of the series will get a chance to play for the Western Conference title and as intense as last year's series was, this one could be even greater.
Last year's series between these two clubs was one for the ages. It featured the heavily favored Rockets watching as Seattle stunned them early with three straight overtime victories. Kelowna took those punches however, got their legs back, and won the next four to finally advance. As exciting as that was, Rockets head coach Ryan Huska doesn't believe it has much of an influence on this year's rematch.
"There's a lot of different players on each team," he says. "I think if anything, probably both groups used it as a learning experience for the regular season this year and starting the playoffs but other than that I don't think its got any bearing."
Huska has a talented and experience roster and one of the team leaders is big defenseman, Damon Severson. The New Jersey Devils prospect acknowledges some of those lessons learned from last year.
"We played Seattle last year in the first round and they put us to the test early," Severson said. "So we can't take anything for granted, they're a good team and they're going to throw everything at us. We've just got to be prepared and we're excited to move on and play these guys."
Seattle makes no secret about how they want to play the game, and there is no reason to think they will change now. As they did against Everett, they will try to get the puck deep and use their size to hit the Kelwona defenseman on the forecheck.
"We've seen that from them over the last couple of years," Huska said. "They have some bigger players up front playing very well and who like to play a physical brand of hockey. Its a matter of us doing a real good job in our own zone. If we can find a way to solve them down low and hopefully not spend as much time in our own end, we'll have an opportunity to keep that strength of theirs away a little bit."
As a defenseman, Severson knows what's in store for him this series. He will be tasked with retrieving the puck and taking some hits. Sometimes in hockey, you have to take a hit to make a play for your team.
"It's going to happen during games," the defenseman says. "Someone might get a good hit on you but you can't get frustrated. As long as we're not playing in our own zone, you're getting pucks out and playing in the offensive zone it's pretty tough for them to hit you. Hopefully we can do a good job as defenseman and our forwards can do a good job down low."
Last year this series was a major mis-match on paper. The Rockets rolled four lines and would throw skilled players at you in waves. They have not lost that ability and depth so the T-Birds will have to match that again. Huska sees the gap a lot closer this year and doesn't think they can just key on one line or player for Seattle.
"All of them," he chuckles when asked about which Seattle player is key. "Of course, on their back end we all know how well (Shea) Theodore's played for them this year, their goaltender, and they have great depth up front. We always talk about the one advantage we have is our depth in regards to being able to play four lines but Seattle's in that position now as well. There isn't just one or two guys to focus on, you have to play a real solid team game."
On defense, Severson knows that he and his mates will have their hands full with Seattle's forwards as well.
"They've got a good couple of solid offensive lines," Severson said of Seattle. "Both their European players are skilled offensively. I know personally, I played with (Branden) Troock and he's really a smooth skater and when he's got the puck on his stick he's able to make things happen so I think he's a good player...it's tough for a defenseman to play him."
The Rockets will certainly cause as many match up problems for Seattle to deal with. They scored 310 goals during the regular season, which was the second most of any team in the WHL -- trailing only Portland's 338. They have a number of guys up front who can score. That list includes Myles Bell (42 goals), Ryan Olsen (30 goals), Nick Merkley (25 goals), Rourke Chartier (24 goals) and Tyson Baillie (22 goals). As potent as their forward lines are, the key to Kelowna's game is their back end.
They allowed the third fewest goals in the league during the regular season by getting good goaltending from Jordon Cooke and great play by an experienced defensive core. Everything starts for Kelowna by protecting their own end.
"We try to create our opportunities from the back end," Severson says. "We've got a couple of guys on our team here, like myself, who like to join that rush to create some offense from the back end so as long as we keep the puck out of our net and are able to break the puck out quickly, get it up to the forwards hand...that's a key to us for sure."
They also have a lot of confidence in net with Cooke. The 20-year-old goalie turned in his finest WHL season this past year, winning 39 games with a save percentage of .922. That breeds a lot of confidence amongst your teammates.
"We've had belief in him for the last number of years," Huska says of his goaltender. "There were occasions where he was our best player in the Tri City series that we had. You win and lose with your 20-year-olds and a lot of your 19-year-olds at this time of year. We're expecting him to reach his level and give us a chance to win."
Despite having a roster loaded with high end talent, Huska says that he will need to get contributions from everyone on the roster.
"At this time of the year you often see different players stepping up," he said. "Players that you really maybe don't expect to.We have some older 19-year-olds that are not known for their offensive ability, we're going to need them to be guys who can chip in here and there."
Home ice will be key in this series. The Rockets only lost four regulation games at Prospera Place during the season and Seattle only lost nine at home. Having home ice advantage is a big plus for Kelowna but Huska knows they have to be ready for playing at the ShoWare Center.
"That's what you play all year for, the chance to play four of the seven at home," he said. "We want to make sure we're performing well here for sure. Having said that, you have to play on the road as well. It's not easy to run the table at home, especially when your competition is going to be as good as it is from this point forward. I think the challenge is that you're prepared every night, whether that's in Seattle or that's in Kelowna."
Last year in Seattle, the Rockets got a good taste of how loud the T-Birds building can get. Huska says that they know what they're going to face in Seattle and hopes his players embrace the challenge.
"It's a noisy building," Huska says of the ShoWare Center. "I think its something that's exciting for everybody and I think for a young player, junior age player, to get an opportunity to play in a building like that, when its full and loud is pretty special. Its something the player should enjoy."
Game 1 of this series is Thursday night in Kelowna, faceoff is at 7 P.M.
Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.