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Kelowna Rockets open first round playoff series Friday in Wenatchee

Battle tested Rockets ready

The Kelowna Rockets will look to do something they haven't done in more than seven years, advance to the second round of the Western Hockey League playoffs.

But of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves here. First things first.

The Rockets open up the second season Friday night, kicking off a best-of-seven first round series on the road in Wenatchee.

It's been a long bumpy road to get the Rockets from game one to game 68. They endured a nine-game losing streak through the middle of November before closing the season on a 9-2-2-0 to not only qualify for the playoffs but climb over Spokane, Victoria and Vancouver to secure a fifth place finish thus avoiding the big three of Prince George, Portland and Everett in the first round.

"I think we faced some adversity at different points in the season. We had that stretch early, before Christmas then a little bit after," said veteran Dylan Wightman.

"Because we came out of that I think we're better for it now. Some teams when they face a little bit of adversity they learn how to cope with that so when things don't go their way in playoffs they can battle through it."

Wightman, whose junior career will come to an end once the playoffs conclude believes the team is battle tested, basically playing playoff hockey the last six weeks just to get here.

Their only setbacks during the closing stretch were a pair of regulation defeats to Everett and two overtime losses to Prince George. Except for a 6-2 defeat in Everett, they played those teams tough.

So what changed between those early dark days and now?

"I think we're just buying into a team game. We're all kind of moving in the same direction now where I think there's been guys that really have bought into our system and the way we want to play and there's guys that are stepping up," said Wightman.

"We're capitalizing at key moments, we're finding ways to win games where we were finding ways to lose games earlier."

"It took longer than anticipated but there is a belief in that room," added head coach Kris Mallette.

"They trust us as a staff with what we planned and now they're seeing the results from it. It was never a work ethic thing with our group and now being able to put that together with the structure and systematic play that brings us the best success is good to see."

The Wild sat at or near the top of the Western Conference standings through the first half of the season before management decided to jettison all-stars Conor Geekie and Matthew Savoie for younger players and a boatload of draft picks and an eye to the future.

While that decision coincided with a tumble down the standings, Mallette says the Wild still have the horses who have been through long playoff runs, especially on the blueline.

The top three of Graham Sward, Jonas Woo and Karter Prosofsky have a combined 75 playoff games under their belt.

Puck management, says Mallette will be the key.

"They are a transition team. They've got a couple of guys on the back end that can really turn the puck up and join the rush to make it a four-headed monster for the most part.

"We have to make sure when we're in our own zone we're sacrificing and getting in lanes. In the offensive zone where we do most of our work it's going to be on our guys to take the ice they were given and make sure we are working hard and making it tough on some players that might play a little more than normal. Make them uncomfortable and play to our strengths."

Mallette says he has faith in the room. Confidence, he says, is big this time of year and he feels everyone, top to bottom, has quite a bit.

Game two in the series is set for Saturday in Wenatchee before the series shifts back to Prospera Place for games three and four next Tuesday and Wednesday.



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