Larry Fisher Kelownadailycourier.ca
The Okanagan Rockets have their work cut out to repeat — or technically, three-peat — as champions of The Daily Courier Kelowna International Elite Midget Tournament.
Having won the showcase in 2010 and again in 2014 after a three-year absence, the Rockets returned to defend their title this week despite only returning one player in captain-defenceman Mark Krabben. Through two days and three of five round-robin games, the Rockets were below the playoff cut with a 1-2 record. They need to beat the undefeated Saskatoon Contacts (3-0) tonight and the Kitchener, Ont., Jr. Rangers (1-2) on Saturday to have any shot at earning a semifinal berth.
“To be sitting where we are is disappointing, but I’ve been happy with the effort and I’ve liked the way we’ve played for the most part,” said manager David Michaud shortly after Thursday evening’s 4-2 loss to OHA White of Penticton. The Rockets also dropped a 2-1 decision to Delta in Wednesday’s opener before rebounding for a 2-1 win over the Compete Rams on Thursday morning.
“We probably deserved to win that (Delta) game, but we made one little mistake and it ended up haunting us,” Michaud said of a late, deciding goal against. “I guess the Hockey Gods are still mad at us for the way we played in Calgary (winless, 0-4 at the Mac’s).”
Not to take anything away from OHA White (3-0), another unbeaten team that features 7 first-round picks from the 2014 WHL bantam draft. The Rockets have only one — defenceman Nolan Kneen — and lack the offensive weapons of last year’s team that included Tyson Jost and Jake Kryski, both first-rounders from 2013.
“We don’t have the firepower that we had a year ago where we could outclass a team by five or six goals,” Michaud admitted. “Teams are going to find a way to hang around on us for the most part, and it’s up to us to do those little things right.”
Right now, the bounces are going against the Rockets and they are struggling to overcome those momentum shifts.
“As much as anything, this week was about sort of trying to find our game again,” Michaud said. “We seemed to have lost it in Calgary, and it’s tough to get back. You can’t just flick a switch and say we’re going to start doing everything right again.”
There is still a lot of hockey left to be played, both this weekend and when the Rockets resume B.C. Major Midget League play next weekend in Richmond.
“That’s what I love about these tournaments and where they come in the season for us. Nothing bad comes of it,” said Michaud, whose team also went on to win the BCMML title and earn bronze at the Telus Cup national tournament in 2014. “Last year, obviously it showed us that we could win, and this year it’s teaching us that there are some things we need to fix if we want to be able to win again.”
That is not to say the Rockets are throwing in the towel on KIMMT, but they are treating tonight’s game against Saskatoon as a must-win. Puck drop is 7 p.m. at the Rutland West arena.
“We have to take it a game at a time right now and see if we can get ourselves back in the mix here,” Michaud said. “First things first, we’ve got to worry about taking care of business against the Contacts and then doing the same against Kitchener, and just hope that it’s enough.”
Beating the Contacts will be easier said than done, with Michaud describing them as “a typical hard-working Saskatchewan team, but they’ve got some nice skill as well. They are going to pose a real challenge for us.”
The host Fripp Warehousing Jr. Rockets (0-3) have already been eliminated from playoff contention after three straight losses. They are the only tier-1 team in this year’s field and the results have magnified that, falling 7-1 to the Winfield-based Pursuit of Excellence on Wednesday, then 5-1 to OHA Red and 3-2 to the Moose Jaw, Sask., Generals on Thursday. Fripp closes out against the Yale Lions today (4:30 p.m., Memorial) and the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Saturday.