The playoff jinx.
It’s all too real to the Kelowna Rockets, who tonight open a best-of-7 Western Hockey League quarterfinal with the Spokane Chiefs.
Three times in the postseason the Rockets have met Spokane. Three times the Rockets went down early.
A regular visitor to the playoffs since their inception as the Tacoma Rockets in 1991-92, the franchise has never won a seven-game series.
So desperate are they to break the habit of first-round failure that they vetoed last year’s playoff format and this week toyed with the idea of restricting player comment.
Center Ryan Wade was briefly appointed spokesman for the players - the only spokesman - in hopes of curtailing media access and eliminating the fear that something dumb might wind up on a bulletin board.
Rockets management heeded the shouts of Kelowna media and backed off, but not until exposing their anxiety.
As the No. 2 seed in the WHL West Division, the Chiefs are the logical pick over the fifth-seeded Rockets. No less a neutral authority than Tri-City coach Rick Lanz picks the Chiefs to win in six.
But don’t look for a walkover. A short series is not in the cards. The Chiefs - 2-8 at home in their last 10 postseason games - will probably have to win on the road, which they’ve done under coach Mike Babcock.
“We had the best record in our division over the last 10 games,” Babcock reasons. “We finished 7-3. They were 4-5-1. We haven’t been giving up a ton of opportunities.
“But what this comes down to more than momentum is hard work, goaltending, specialty teams, defense and desperation.”
Babcock could have added a third D factor. Discipline. Last year, it was discipline, or lack of it, that swung a tight series Spokane’s way.
“We took way too many silly penalties last year,” said Kelowna broadcaster Rick Ball.
This time the Rockets vow not to beat themselves. They put that resolve to good use in the regular season, winning five of their last six games with Spokane.
“These are two very similar teams,” Rockets coach Peter Anholt said. “We sell a lot of the same ideas to our players.”
One idea strictly Kelowna-inspired is this playoff format. The second game is Tuesday night in Spokane. Game 3 is the next night in Kelowna.
Why not play the first two on Friday and Saturday nights in Kelowna, like last year?
“The feeling is that it’s almost a disadvantage to open at home when you don’t have home-ice advantage,” said Ball, the voice of the Rockets. “Say you split the first two. Then you’ve got four of the next five on the road. It leaves you with too much to do.”
As the higher seed, the Chiefs were entitled to open at home. But with the Shrine Circus booked in the Arena, they were forced to start on the road under terms - after some haggling at the league level - dictated by Rockets owner Bruce Hamilton.
If the series goes the full seven, the two clubs will meet twice on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in different cities. That’s an added travel burden, but as Spokane GM Tim Speltz points out: “Format won’t decide the outcome.”
Kelowna’s Brett McLean, Jason Deleurme and Luke Curtin form an explosive line that for sheer firepower the Chiefs can’t match.
Deleurme had a goal in regulation and another in the shootout to help the West win the WHL all-star game.
“Deleurme is a good 20-year-old who’s played five years in this league,” Rockets coach Pete Anholt said. “That line should be able to play with any team’s first line, at any time.”
Wade at center with Scott Parker and Quintin Laing make for an effective second wave.
As for limitations, Deleurme doesn’t back-check and Parker can’t kill penalties.
The Chiefs counter with two-way forwards who punish and finesse. Ty Jones burned the Rockets for 12 points in eight games. Cam Severson, teamed with Trent Whitfield, is an imposing sight on the forecheck or in the rush.
Derek Schutz is effective on the smaller ice surface in Kelowna. And Greg Leeb, having his finest year at 20, is due for a big playoff series.
Lingering injuries may turn out to be huge. Kelowna defenseman Scott Hannan was out the last 25 games after suffering a concussion. If he can’t go it could mean long nights in a short series for Kelowna.
Goaltender Chris Noble missed the last two weeks with a groin injury.
Spokane is without defenseman Kyle Rossiter. If he comes back from a shoulder separation, suffered when Parker took him into the wall with a clean check, it should hasten the Rocket exit.
Goaltenders Noble and Spokane’s Aren Miller will have their say. After signing with the Detroit Red Wings this week, Miller would seem to have the emotional edge going in, an edge compounded by questions of Noble’s troublesome groin.
The unsung hero may emerge as he did last year, when Spokane’s now-departed journeyman Mike Haley stepped up. If it’s a Rocket who’s destined to step from out of the wings, look for Bryan Randall, Rory McDade or Kevin Korl. Spokane rookie Brandin Cote is talented enough and veteran Kris Graf salty enough to make something happen.
Luck will play a part.
The puck takes strange bounces, especially in Memorial Arena (capacity 1,855), where every corner is different.
‘You have to be careful with dump-ins and rims,” Anholt warns.
Toughness is always a factor when these two meet. The Rockets have the WHL’s undisputed heavyweight champ in Parker, whose penalty minutes took a dive this year in part because nobody challenged him.
The hard-working 6-4, 230-pound Parker is a formidable presence in front of the net on the redirect or as a screen.
The Chiefs pride themselves on collective grit. Parker and the Chiefs defensive corps - the deepest set of blue-liners in the West - are on a collision course.
“Our fans don’t come out to watch us make pretty plays,” said Babcock, who’s averaged 40 wins in his four seasons in Spokane. “They come to see us run over people.”
Babcock was at his best blending the diverse and potentially divisive talents of relatively late-arriving veterans Zenith Komarniski, Severson, Rick Berry and Perry Johnson with the established leadership represented by Whitfield and Leeb.
Severson’s presence made for a much more effective Whitfield.
“Severson is a bull out there,” Whitfield said. “He creates a lot of room. He’s a big, strong kid that you can’t really handle down low.”
Those words may serve as the latest epitaph of the Rockets’ playoff hopes. The Chiefs really can’t be handled down low.
So the crystal ball, please …
The picks in the quarterfinals: Portland to eliminate Seattle in five games, Prince George to oust Kamloops in six and Spokane - with twice as many top-line defensemen - to get by Kelowna in seven.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CHIEFS VS. ROCKETS Schedule for the best-of-7 West Division first-round series between Spokane and Kelowna: Game 1: Today at Kelowna, 7:30 p.m. Game 2: Tuesday at Spokane, 7 Game 3: Wednesday at Kelowna, 7:30 Game 4: Friday at Spokane, 7 Game 5: March 29 at Spokane, 6* Game 6: March 31 at Kelowna, 7:30* Game 7: April 1 at Spokane, 7* * if necessary
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