Underdog Rockets ready to go
Kelowna Rockets - underdogs?
A team that won a Western Hockey League regular season title with 118 points.
A team ranked number one in the Canadian Hockey League since the start of the 2014 calendar year.
That's how the Rockets see themselves as they get set to face the three time defending Western Conference champion Portland Winterhawks.
"They are champions, we're not. I think that's how you have to look at. They know how to win. They've won and a lot of the players that have had success over the last two years are still in that dressing room," said Rockets assistant coach, Dan Lambert on the eve of the start of the Western Conference final.
"Until you dethrone the champions they are always going to be the team that is favoured."
It's a label Lambert says the Rockets are okay with.
"We know what we're up against and we are going to try to do our best to put our best foot forward. In the end it is going to be the team that plays their game the best that's going to win this series."
It's also one veteran defenceman Damon Severson is okay with.
"I have no problem with that. We can be the underdogs," said Severson.
"Obviously they are the defending champs. Any time you have a team that has had the success they've had in the last few years it's huge. If we can knock a team like that off it's key for our organization and it will be a lot of fun for us to win those games."
The much anticipated conference final opens tonight (Friday), 7:30 at Prospera Place with game two Saturday at 7.
Any edge the Rockets do have is the fact if the series goes the distance which many expect it will, the deciding game would be played in Kelowna in a building where the Rockets have fallen just four times in regulation time in 41 games.
Along with a chance to knock off the defending champions Severson says veterans such as himself are looking for a bit of payback for a team that knocked them out of the playoffs in 2011 and 2012.
"Revenge is a big thing for sure. They beat us twice - once in the first round and once in the second round," said Severson.
"You don't want to lose to anybody especially these guys. It's the western final and you really don't want to lose now. They're going to be looking for payback for the regular season but we want payback for past playoffs."
Payback will be easier said than done.
The Winterhawks come into the conference final as hot as any team could.
They rattled off 21 straight wins following the Jan 10 trade deadline then, after a loss to Seattle, won seven in a row to end the season.
They, like the Rockets, have won eight of nine in the post season - a streak of 36 wins in 38 games.
Shutting them down will be no easy task.
"You can't give them any odd man rushes because if you do they will make you pay. They are such a skilled team that if you give them an inch they'll take a mile," said Lambert.
"We don't want to play them shorthanded, we don't want to play them four-on-four even because they do have a lot of guys that can create when they have time and space. It's going to be key for us to keep those top six forward and top two defenceman off the board."
Lambert says they key to shutting down a team like Portland is to take away their time and space.
"We are going to have to try to pressure them. We are going to have to try to force them into uncomfortable situations.
Situations where typically teams back off because of their speed we have to close in on them and to go at them that way. I would rather make them make good plays then give them time to make good plays because a good player will make a good play whenever he's got time."
Portland comes in with four players in the top 10 in playoff scoring while the Rockets, who like to share the scoring, are led by Severson and rookie Nick Merkley who are tied for 11th with 13 points apiece.
Severson almost single-handedly lifted the Rockets to a four game sweep of Seattle in round two.
The 19-year-old defenceman had four goals and seven assists in the series.
Severson says it was the will to win that allowed him to play arguably his best hockey as a Rocket.
"I realize that big players have to step up in big situations and I wanted to be that guy to contribute to the team and the team's success," said Severson.
"I just did my best to play the game I know I can play."
Lambert, who is in charge of the Rockets defencemen says a veteran 19-year-old like Severson is expected to take charge and that's exactly what he did against Seattle.
"You look at some of the reasons he had success and there's no doubt the special teams we very good and he was a big part of it," said Lambert.
"Probably the key thing for him is he shoots the puck so well. Whenever you hit the net and shoot the puck the way he does typically good things happen."
Following Saturday's second game the teams will travel to Portland for games three and four next Tuesday and Wednesday.
Game five, if needed, would be back at Prospera Place a week tonight.
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