Monday, March 31, 2014

Staring into the Rockets Red Glare

Depending on who you spoke with, the Thunderbirds were either a slight favorite or slight underdog in their first round series against Everett. That won't be the case in round two. As they were a year ago when they met Kelowna in round one of the postseason, the T-birds are not just underdogs, they are decided underdogs against the Rockets once again.

It's simple, Kelowna is not just the higher seed in this match up, they are the top seed remaining in the entire WHL postseason, East or West. The Rockets spent the vast majority of the season atop the B.C. Division, atop the Western Conference, at the top of the WHL standings and atop the CHL Top Ten Poll which encompasses not one, not two, but three Major Junior leagues. Most pundits have had them penciled into the Western Conference Finals since November. The point disparity between the two clubs is not as great as it was last season when Kelowna finished 50 points higher in the standings then Seattle (108-58) but the Rockets still had 16 more wins then did the T-birds this season.

Seattle? Well, when the T-birds played their best hockey they showed they could skate with any team in the league, winning a combined eight games against Portland, Kelowna and Victoria, the other three teams remaining in the Western Conference playoffs. They are battle tested and won't be intimidated by the Rockets success. But they also showed they could be inconsistent and lose to teams that, on paper, they should not have lost to as evidenced by their 1-3 record against the Kamloops Blazers.

Seattle also went through a long stretch midseason where injuries decimated their roster. Who knows where they might have finished had they stayed healthy all season. Then, after clinching a playoff spot in mid-February they seemed to ease off the gas and faltered down the stretch going 4-8-0-1 in their last 13 games and almost giving away home ice advantage for round one. As a result the T-birds had three occasions this season in which they lost four or more consecutive games. This is what they need to avoid in the playoffs; letting their game fall off. Only three times this season did Kelowna even lose back-to-back games and in each case, one of the two losses was either in overtime or a shootout so they never went more then a game without earning a point.

What does it all mean? Well I think the fans and media read more into that then the players and coaches do. The regular season doesn't matter right now; the first round of the playoffs doesn't matter right now. Both teams are 0-0 and it is the first team to get to four wins that matters. I don't think there is one player on the T-birds roster, or for that matter the Rockets roster, who doesn't think their team can win this series. All the T-birds know is that if they bring their "A" game every night against the Rockets, they have just as much chance to advance out of this series as they did in their first round matchup with Everett.

All Kelowna knows is that if they play the way they played throughout the regular season and in their first round series win over Tri-City, they have an opportunity to get to the Western Conference Finals. It is that simple. The team that executes their game plan, finishes their opportunities and makes fewer mistakes, will come out on top.

A lot will be made about the T-birds looking to avenge their loss to the Rockets in the first round last spring. The rematch just one year later makes for great drama, blogger fodder and series hype, but more then half this Seattle roster wasn't even with the club a year ago or didn't play in that series. Hard to seek revenge when you have no connection to that series. Is Seattle relishing another chance at Kelowna? Of course they are but that's because the Rockets stand between them and a berth in the Western Conference Finals. A Seattle win in this series won't erase what happened a year ago so if the T-birds are more focused on revenge rather then on playing their game for sixty minutes every night they'll lose this series. Their focus has to be on their game, their way.

That doesn't preclude T-birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk from sending the same message to his players as he did a year ago. Enjoy it, have fun because, you just don't know when the ride will end as it did so abruptly in overtime of Game 7 a year ago.

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