At the end of last month, the slumping Kelowna Rockets didn’t look like a serious threat to overtake either the Prince George Cougars or Kamloops Blazers.
But thanks to a nice kickstart to February—six wins in seven games—Jason Smith’s club has both B.C. Division rivals taking a peek over their shoulders.
Heading into Tuesday night’s action, the Rockets (33-20-4-0) had moved to within eight points of the Cougars for top spot, and were just four in arrears of Kamloops for second place. Kelowna also has two games in hand on the Blazers.
On Jan. 31, having lost five times in a six-game span, Kelowna was a distant 17 points out of first and nine behind Kamloops.
Instrumental in the surge was a two-game sweep of the hometown Cougars on Feb. 3 and 4, and most recently a come-from behind win over the red-hot Seattle Thunderbirds Monday at Prospera Place.
After a tough stretch of hockey with few positive results, Smith likes the way his club has responded through the first two weeks of February.
“We’re making progress, and that’s part of what really growing as a team is,” said Smith. “You go through a little adversity and things aren’t going well, it’s about how you got from there and what you do next time you’re on the ice.”
The Rockets didn’t exactly have their ‘A’ game through two periods Monday afternoon against Seattle, but erupted with four unanswered third-period goals for a 6-3 win and two crucial points in the B.C. Division race.
Nick Merkley, who had a goal and two assists in the victory, said the Rockets’ ability to rise to the challenge against a team of the Thunderbirds’ quality is a promising sign.
“It’s good to see that, see the character in the room, us come together as a team in the third and get the win,” said Merkley. “It’s a pretty special group in there. Hopefully we can carry that forward.”
“They’re a good team, they play a good team game and they compete,” Jason Smith added, referring to the Thunderbirds who had won 11 of their last 12 games prior to Wednesday. “So to battle back from being down and leave with a win is definitely nice.”
Calvin Thurkauf scored twice in the win over Seattle to push his team-leading goal total to 27. Carsen Twarynski also scored against the Thunderbirds, his first goal as a Rocket since coming over last month in a trade with the Calgary Hitmen.
The Rockets will continue their four-game homestand Friday when they host the Spokane Chiefs.
On Saturday, Prince George makes its second to last stop of the season at Prospera Place. Face-off both nights is 7:05 p.m.
The 18-year-old netminder from Calgary went 2-0-0-0 in two games against the Vancouver Giants, stopping 41 shots in a pair of Kelowna victories.
Salmond stopped 22 shots in a 6-0 win Friday in Kelowna, then 19 more in a 5-0 Rockets’ victory Saturday night in Langley.