Rockets Return to Form at Memorial Cup

• Kelowna Rockets Team Preview

• Quebec Remparts 4, Kelowna Rockets 3

The Kelowna Rockets — and captain Madison Bowey — are back on track at the Memorial Cup.

After struggling in their tournament opener — falling 4-3 to the host Quebec Remparts on Friday — the WHL champions rebounded to rout the Rimouski Oceanic 7-3 on Monday, setting up a first-place showdown with the OHL champion Oshawa Generals today. If Kelowna wins by more than one goal, the Rockets will earn a bye to Sunday’s championship game regardless of the Quebec-Rimouski outcome in Wednesday’s round-robin finale. If Kelowna wins by only one goal and Quebec beats Rimouski, creating a three-way tie for top spot at 2-1, then it would come down to a goal differential tiebreaker. But thanks to the Rockets’ blowout victory, they would still secure the bye unless Quebec beats Rimouski by more than four goals. That would seem unlikely with those teams evenly matched and coming off a close QMJHL championship series that saw Rimouski prevail in double overtime of Game 7. However, if Kelowna loses to Oshawa, the Generals would finish the round robin undefeated and punch their ticket to the final, while the Rockets would need to play at least one — and possibly two — playoff games before getting another shot at Oshawa.

The stakes are high for today’s game, much like they were for the Rockets against Rimouski. They were treating that matchup as a Game 7 and it showed, with Kelowna racing out to an early 3-0 lead before pulling away for good with three unanswered goals in the second period.

Bowey was impressive in bouncing back from an uncharacteristically bad performance in the opener, as Kelowna’s best players all brought their A-game against the Oceanic. Leon Draisaitl, the 2014 third overall pick who spent the first half of this season with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, and draft-eligible Nick Merkley, who is climbing the rankings and could potentially be a top-10 selection, led the way with two goals each. They had 3-point efforts, as did Bowey with a goal and two assists. Gage Quinney also scored twice against Rimouski, continuing to chip in offensively after being a throw-in to the Josh Morrissey trade back in December.

For Merkley, it was his third 3-point night in the past 5 games, having matched that output twice against Brandon in Games 2 (2g, 1a) and 3 (0g,3a) of the WHL championship series, which Kelowna swept in four straight. Merkley was named Monday’s first star, ahead of Bowey and Draisaitl — and rightfully so. Known more for his playmaking skills, Merkley showed some nice finishing touch on his goals, especially his skate-to-skate-to-stick deke move to open the scoring just 52 seconds after the opening puck-drop. The trailer on a rush, Merkley took Draisaitl’s pass in his feet and managed to kick the puck up to his stick before flipping it past Rimouski starter Louis-Philip Guindon for a highlight-reel goal — possibly the goal of the tournament so far.

Bowey made it 2-0 with a point shot through traffic that deflected in off Oceanic defender Jan Kostalek, and the Rockets were off to the races. Quinney got his first on a gift from Merkley, whose backhand pass from close range gave Quinney an open net to shoot at and he wasn’t going to miss — not with his hot hand as a point-per-game player during the post-season.

Rimouski’s quick-strike offence cut the deficit to 3-2 after 20 minutes, but Kelowna returned fire in the middle frame, getting goals from Quinney, Merkley and, lastly, Draisaitl, who charged the net and fired home a perfect feed from Dillon Dube, the 16-year-old rookie rocketing up the rankings for the 2016 NHL draft.

With a 6-2 lead through two periods, the Rockets started to roll their third and fourth lines more, shortening their bench and saving guys like Draisaitl for the Oshawa game the following night. That was, until Frederik Gauthier got the Oceanic within three by banking the puck in off Morrissey from behind the goal-line on a strange sequence that saw Rockets goaltender Jackson Whistle get out of position after a failed attempt to clear the puck away from a hard-charging Gauthier. But the Rockets responded just 40 seconds later when Draisaitl took matters into his own hands with an end-to-end shorthanded rush before roofing a shot on Rimouski’s replacement netminder Philippe Desrosiers. That was Draisaitl’s fourth shorthanded goal of the post-season and Kelowna’s 11th in 21 games, proving once again that the Rockets are dangerous in all situations.

That served as an exclamation point on a convincing victory for Kelowna and showed the rest of Canada what Draisaitl is capable of when he gets going. He’s a game-breaker at the junior level, but will have his work cut out for him today against an Oshawa team that effectively shut down Connor McDavid, limiting the projected first overall pick in next month’s draft to only 1 assist in 3 road games during an OHL championship series that lasted just 5 games.

“It’s nice to show the hockey world what we’re capable of. We played, in my opinion, one of the worst games we played all year against Quebec. It’s nice to get everybody going, get a few guys on the scoresheet and show the world that we’re better than we have been against the Remparts. It was nice to score that many goals, for sure.” — Leon Draisaitl after beating Rimouski 7-3.

With Kelowna only recently loading up its top line — Draisaitl, with Merkley and leading goal-scorer Rourke Chartier — today’s game will likely come down to whether that trio can generate offence against the Generals. Oshawa has some big bodies — such as 6-foot-6 forwards Micheal McCarron (Montreal Canadiens) and Hunter Smith (Calgary Flames) — and will be a rested opponent riding a wave of momentum after beating both Quebec teams, downing Rimouski 4-3 on Saturday, then Quebec 5-4 in overtime on Sunday. It could also come down to which unheralded goalie performs better — Kelowna’s Whistle or Oshawa’s Ken Appleby, both undrafted 1995-born netminders. Tyson Baillie has yet to bulge the twine in Quebec City, but with his penchant for scoring big goals — leading the WHL playoffs with 5 game-winners — he might be due to get one against Oshawa.

This has been a high-scoring tournament to this point, but don’t be surprised if today’s game more closely resembles the 2-1 NHL playoffs than the 4-3 Memorial Cup barnburners we’ve seen thus far. Not that the NHL’s conference finals have lacked in goals or entertainment value, but with a championship berth on the line for both Kelowna and Oshawa, expect them to engage in a close-checking contest with any breakthrough being an important one in the big picture. And don’t be shocked if the Rockets and Generals — regardless of who wins today — face off in a rematch on Sunday for national supremacy. Kelowna was, after all, the pre-tournament favourite in the eyes of many because of Draisaitl’s star power and a strong supporting cast.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.