By Tim Pigulski
The regular season couldn't have gone much better for the Kelowna Rockets, who finished with the WHL's best record and found themselves ranked atop most polls as not only the best team in the Western Hockey League, but the entire Canadian Hockey League.
For Seattle, there were some definite high and low points, but overall it was a very good season. The T-Birds recorded 30 more points during the regular season than they did last year, including 17 more wins. With that improvement, they finished fourth in the Western Conference, giving them home-ice advantage in the first round, which Seattle made the most of in defeating rival Everett four games to one.
However, none of that matters now, as the T-Birds and Rockets are set for a rematch of last year's historic first-round series. As the conference's top seed, Kelowna will have home-ice advantage, but if the T-Birds are able to do a few things they have a chance to upset one of the top teams in major junior hockey.
Play with an edge, but smart. For the T-Birds to be successful against a very good Kelowna team, they're going to need to assert themselves physically. If they can play like they did in Game 5 versus Everett, when they set the tone with a few big open-ice hits but were penalized only once, they'll put the Rockets back on their heels and control the tempo of the game.
Players like Evan Wardley, Jared Hauf, Mitch Elliot, Jaimen Yakubowski, Justin Hickman, Branden Troock, and Keegan Kolesar will be important in this series. Each is capable of changing the momentum of a game when they throw their weight around. However, it's also important that these players (and everyone else) stay out of the penalty box. In Seattle's only loss in the opening round, the Silvertips went 2-for-5 on the power play while Jaimen Yakubowski served a one-game suspension for a hit on Everett's Noah Juulsen. The penalties, combined with the absence of a key player, opened the way for an offensive explosion by the 'Tips.
The Rockets, led by gritty wing Tyrell Goulbourne, won't back down easily. In the same way that Seattle will hope to pressure Kelowna's defensemen on the forecheck, Seattle's own blueliners will need to be able to stare down the Rockets' pressure and make good, quick decisions with the puck on the breakout.
Win the special teams battle. When these two teams faced each other in the playoffs last year, Seattle's power play was dismal en route to an 0-for-27 performance. Considering that Kelowna's final three victories of the series were all by one goal, just one or two timely power-play goals over the course of the series could have changed everything for Seattle.
During the regular season, Seattle and Kelowna played four times, each finishing with a 2-1-0-1 record against the other. In the T-Birds' two losses combined, Kelowna was 4-for-11 with the man advantage. In Seattle's wins, the Rockets were just 1-for-11.
In the first round this season, the T-Birds had only 17 power-play opportunities in five games against the rarely-penalized Silvertips, three of which they converted. They're sure to have more opportunities against a Kelowna team that was shorthanded 98 more times than Everett during the regular season.
Make no mistake – the Rockets are a very, very good hockey team. The T-Birds will need to take advantage of their power-play opportunities while ensuring that they limit their opposition's.
Taran Kozun needs to steal a game (or two). Kelowna was the WHL's second-highest scoring team during the regular season, averaging 4.3 goals per game. If T-Birds goalie Taran Kozun can steal a game or two – which he has shown he is perfectly capable of – and be solid during the remainder of the series, Seattle can win.
In their first-round matchup with Tri-City, the Rockets lost only one game. That contest, a 4-3 defeat at the Toyota Center, saw the Americans' Eric Comrie turn away 52 of 55 shots. That total ended up being Kelowna's highest in the series, yet it turned into their lone loss.
Against Everett, we saw the T-Birds win a couple of close games that they perhaps should have lost due to outstanding performances by Kozun in net. The Nipawin, Saskatchewan native had four shutouts in just 24 regular-season games with Seattle. If he can put together one or two of those performances against an offensively-potent Rockets team, Seattle will be in a very good position to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
One thing that makes this Kelowna team so tough is its defense's ability to jump into the play, essentially giving the team four forwards. The Rockets are led by Damon Severson, a New Jersey Devils selection two years ago who has a cannon of slapshot, and team captain Madison Bowey, a Washington Capitals draftee who had 60 points during the regular season. Both are great two-way players.
Three of the Rockets' top 11 scorers were defensemen, and Mitchell Wheaton would also factor into that number had he not missed a month of time after being taken off the ice on a stretcher following a hit from Seattle's Roberts Lipsbergs. Seattle's forwards will need to ensure that they play a sound positional game to avoid odd-man rushes and give Kozun as much help as they can.
Play with urgency the entire series. Ask T-Birds coach Steve Konowalchuk and just about every loss this season can likely be attributed to a lack of consistent effort. If the T-Birds give a 99 percent effort in this series, they will lose.
Both Konowalchuk and alternate captain Adam Henry agreed that the main reason for Seattle's only first-round loss to Everett was due to a lack of urgency. The Silvertips, with their backs against the wall and in a must-win situation, played like a team that had to win to keep playing, while the T-Birds' effort reflected that of a team that could afford to lose a few games.
Seattle rebounded in a big way, turning in an impressive 60-minute effort just 24 hours later to clinch the series. While Game 4 was ugly, it may have served the purpose of proving to the T-Birds that anything less than their best wouldn't cut it. Against a team like Kelowna, which is far superior to Everett in every aspect, rebounding may not be so easy. Look no further than last season, when the T-Birds made history by squandering a three-games-to-zero lead. No game, and certainly not the series, will be over until the final whistle blows.
Match Kelowna's depth. The Rockets feature four lines that can score, which isn't something that many teams in the WHL can match. Its roster featured 11 players that had over 30 points during the regular season.
The T-Birds, however, do have the talent up and down their depth chart to keep up with Kelowna. During their first-round series, just two skaters who played didn't register a point – Wardley, who made a huge impact with his aforementioned physical play; and Calvin Spencer, who played in only one game while Yakubowski was suspended.
Even if you look at the players who had just one point during that series, you can see that they still made a huge impact on the outcome. Captain Justin Hickman's only point was an overtime game-winning goal. Henry had just one assist, but was also a plus-five, which tied for best on the team. Sam McKechnie was an essential penalty killer, and Hauf was a menacing presence on the blue line.
One player who will need to step up in this series is forward Alex Delnov. Despite being one of the most offensively-talented players on the roster, the Russian forward finds himself playing on the fourth line between bruisers Elliot and Kolesar. He's struggled defensively, but if he can work out his kinks at both ends of the ice before the series starts, Seattle will be able to feature four lines that can score, intimidate, and keep the Rockets off the score sheet.
Additionally, if someone can step up offensively in the second round the way that Scott Eansor did in the first, it will give Seattle one more important weapon. Whether it's Eansor again or someone new like Kolesar, Elliot, McKechnie or Yakubowski, having those extra couple of goals from an unexpected source will force Kelowna coach Ryan Huska to modify his game plan.
If the T-Birds can outmuscle their counterparts in a smart way, play better in both special-teams situations, get a couple of huge games from Kozun, play each game as though it could be their last, and skate four lines consistently, they could find themselves advancing to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2002-2003 season.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.