March 12, 2013, Kelowna,BC (ISN) – When the Kelowna Rockets saluted its fans at Prospera Place on Saturday night, moments after clinching the Western Hockey League’s BC Division championship with a thrilling 2-1 win over Kamloops, it signified the team’s second BC banner in three years.
But more than that it was the culmination of a remarkable run to the title that saw the Rockets erase a big Blazers lead atop the division that had a Rockets division title seeming like a distant possibility.
In fact when Rockets and Blazers met on Nov. 1st in Kelowna, Kamloops was a full 15 points ahead of Kelowna after a 17-1 start to the WHL season. The 3-0 win by the Rockets on that night at Prospera Place was the team’s first of four wins over the Blazers this season. It was also the third straight win by the Rockets at Prospera Place in a streak that would eventually hit a Kelowna club record 23 straight wins at home.
And while many observers were lauding a powerful Kamloops team after the first 20 games of the season, those within the Rockets dressing room had targeted the BC title.
“We had a goal setting session in October with our players and they set a goal of finishing first in our division when we were a lot of points behind Kamloops,” Rockets head coach Ryan Huska said on the weekend. “We kept chipping away and got it done.”
The first couple months of the WHL season saw Kamloops and Kelowna off to different starts. The Blazers roared out of the gates, winning 16 of its first 17 games before losing that game on Nov. 1 to Kelowna.
The Rockets on the other hand, got off to a much slower start, losing its first three games of the season including both games of a season-opening home and home series with the Blazers. The Rockets were 8-8 through the month of October and had 11 wins in its first 20 games. But by mid-November the team was hitting its stride and beginning a hot streak that would last more than three months.
The Rockets won nine of its 11 games in November, losing twice on the road in Tri-City. In December, Kelowna also won nine of 11, winning four of five on a pre-Christmas Alberta road trip and returning from its Christmas break to beat Kamloops 7-3 at Prospera Place on Dec. 27.
By the time the calendar turned to 2013, the Rockets had served notice they were for real. They were ranked in the top 10 in the CHL and they had caught the Blazers, tying Kamloops for first place on Jan. 7.
Of the Rockets 14 games in January, they would lose just one in regulation, a road loss in Vancouver. The Rockets were 13-1-1-0 in January closing out the month with a 6-5 overtime loss in Kamloops that saw the Blazers erase a two goal deficit in the third period and win in overtime.
It wasn’t until the Portland Winterhawks came to Kelowna on Feb. 8 and 9 that the Rockets suffered a letdown as the Hawks won twice, stopping the Rockets home winning streak at 23, and ending three-plus months of outstanding play that saw the Rockets lose just eight times in 44 games.
The Rockets would lose five times in February, losing twice to Portland and twice to Kamloops as the team suffered through its first real adversity of the year. But two wins in Victoria to close out the month of February appeared to right the Rockets ship.
March opened up with a 3-0 loss in Kamloops on March 3 and when the Blazers beat Victoria last Tuesday, Kamloops had clawed back to within a point of Kelowna for first in the BC division.
But the Rockets beat Victoria 4-3 in a shootout the next night, restoring its three point lead heading into last weekend’s home and home with Kamloops. And the Rockets 3-2 win in Kamloops and 2-1 win at home, clinched the BC divison championship.
“This was a weekend that we wanted to show (Kamloops) we could play with them. It puts us in the right mindset moving forward,” Huska said following Saturday’s game. “There was a lot of questions surrounding us, if we could beat the good teams, since our games against Portland. Every team goes through their ups and downs and we’ve got a group that believe in themselves.”
Kelowna closes out the WHL regular season this week, hosting Prince George Thursday, playing in Vancouver Friday and hosting the Giants on Saturday. The WHL playoffs begin March 22 in Kelowna and the Rockets will enter the playoffs as the Western Conference’s second seed. A first round opponent is still to be determined.