Zach Franko had a career night leading the Kelowna Rockets to a convincing 7-3 victory over the visiting Kamloops Blazers in the first game after the Christmas break for both teams.
Franko scored twice and added three assists giving him 41 points at the halfway point of the season - two more than he had over a full 72 game schedule a year ago.
Rockets head coach Ryan Huska says the difference in Franko's play over last season can be attributed to his work during the off season.
"I think over the summer he really worked hard so he put on some weight and some muscle which is significantly different from his prior couple of years with us. I think that gave him quite a bit of confidence," says Huska.
"I think the other thing now is he has a belief in his ability again. He had a tough year last year and I think he set his mind to coming back and being a difference for us."
Huska says Franko now feels he is one of the Rockets main offensive guys and he's playing that way.
The top line with Franko, Ryan Olsen and Myles Bell contributed 11 points with Olsen scoring twice and adding a pair of assists while Bell had a goal and an assist.
"Ryan and I have had chemistry all year and, unfortunately with (Colton) Sissons went down with an injury they put Beller up with us and it clicks," says Franko.
"He can score, he can make plays and that's what we look for in a linemate."
JT Barnett scored the other two goals for the Rockets. Tim Bozon had a pair in a losing cause for the Blazers.
Franko opened the scoring with a highlight reel goal off a beautiful cross ice feed from Bell. Franko took the pass on his forehand in full stride, cut across the crease and lifted a backhand high into the empty net.
The goal and Franko's emphatic celebration into the glass got the sellout crowd of 6,2357 into the game.
"The crowd was awesome tonight. It's great when you sell out," says Franko.
"It was a huge goal for us. At the time it was 0-0 and we kind of hand our backs to the wall - they were pressing in the first period. But we came down, I got a nice pass from Beller and put it in and the wheels kind of started rolling from there."
After Bozon tied the game on a power-play in the opening minute of the second the Rockets caught fire scoring three times in just over three minutes including a pair with the Blazers two men short to grab a 4-1 lead.
Kelowna would add two more before the period came to an end to take a commanding 6-2 lead into the final 20 minutes.
Blazers netminder Cole Cheveldave allowed all six goals before being replaced by Taran Kozun for the start of the third.
The Rockets got a scare late in the second when forward Carter Rigby was drilled into the end board from behind by Blazers defenceman Ryan Rehill.
Rigby lay face down on the ice for several minutes before skating slowly to the bench under his own power.
He remained on the bench and did return to the ice in the third.
"I thought it would be something to do with his head so we are pretty happy that he should be okay. He looked like he is going to bounce back. It's always tough when you see a guy go down," says Huska.
The Rockets were already without Jordon Cooke, Mitchell Chapman, Sissons and Henrik Nyberg to injury and Riley Stadel, Rourke Chartier and Austin Glover at the World Under-17 Tournament.
Huska says Cooke and Sissons could both be ready to return Sunday against Everett while Nyberg is day-to-day with an upper body injury.
Chapman, who hasn't played this season is still not ready to go.
"It's just one of those hard to heal injuries he's dealing with right now. It's not easy for him right now because I know he wants to be playing. He's got to go through the steps," says Huska.
Thursday's win extended the Rockets home ice winning streak to a baker's dozen (13).
They've won 12 of their last 14 overall to climb to within four points of the slumping Blazers who continue to lead the BC Division. The Rockets also hold three games in hand on the Blazers.
Just eight weeks ago the Blazers were riding a 14 game winning streak and sat 15 points clear of the Rockets.
Huska says he didn't think the Rockets would close the gap so quickly but adds being the chaser does provide extra motivation.
"I always feel it's easier when you are a couple of points back and you're the team hunting than the team that's slightly above because they always know someone in right behind them," says Huska.
"That's our position right now and we have to keep pushing."
The Rockets have a chance to close the gap even further when they travel to Vancouver to tangle with the Giants Friday night.
Kelowna goes for home ice win number 14 in a row Sunday when they host Everett at 5 p.m.
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