Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

From the Dub: #hockeyneverleft

I'm as jazzed as the next fan that NHL hockey is back, but I was a bit twerked by their chosen Twitter hashtag of #hockeyisback. For those of us who live in towns with AHL, WHL, college or prep school hockey, it never left; only the NHL did. Major junior hockey, for example, is knee deep in the stretch run, where some teams are close to clinching a playoff spot. Here in the Dub, the Kelowna Rockets are coming on strong, Kamloops is back on track, the Victoria Royals are on a winning streak, and the latest generation of European rookies are proving their draft worth. So you see, NHL, hockey never left; it's been here since September and in the WHL, it's on one collective league-wide roll.

Here's just a taste of what's hot and happening here in the Dub as of late Monday night:

Rocket Power. Portland readers know that I firmly believe we should all beware of any team with a scary lake monster on its jersey, especially if that team is completely and totally deadly on home ice. The Kelowna Rockets are on a 21-game home ice winning streak that is tied for the fourth longest in WHL history. Their current stats are nothing short of ridiculous.The Rockets lead the BC Division, are second in the Western Conference standings and are ranked fourth in current CHL top 10 rankings. Goaltender Jordon Cooke has won his last 21 games and was named WHL Goaltender of the Month for December. Captain Colton Sissons is currently riding a personal 8-game point streak. Defenseman MacKenzie Johnston has 11 points in his last 11 games, and has three goals, 16 points and a plus-26 rating in 30 games. On January 24, left wing Carter Rigby scored five points (3G, 2A) in one game against the Seattle Thunderbirds. Forward Myles Bell has 66 points in 49 games played. The Rockets are 37-10-3-1 on the season. They have won 30 of their last 35 games. I'm saving the dates for when the Portland Winterhawks travel to Kelowna for a two-game road series on February 8 and 9, which will clearly involve the consumption of adult beverages and food that bears little or no resemblance to respectable nutrition. It's the Kelowna Rockets after all, one must prepare for viewing battle accordingly.

Blaze of Glory.  I'm also watching the Kamloops Blazers, who lived up to their name with a flaming hot start to the regular season; they went undefeated between September 28 and November 1, when their streak was snapped in a shutout against guess who... the Kelowna Rockets. They hit a rough patch in late December that extended into January, but I wouldn't count them out by any means. The Blazers are second in the BC Division and third in the Western Conference. I would advise anyone who plays against the team to beware of the line better known as Colin Smith, JC Lipon, and Tim Bozon. Smith is currently third in league points leaders, with 79 points on the season. Lipon is newly returned from his stint playing for Team Canada in the World Juniors, and he is currently ranked 96th among North American Skaters in the Central Scouting midterm rankings. Right behind him at 97 is Cole Ully, who was not mentioned on the early season rankings. Ully is having a career high season, with 34 points in 42 games played. Other players to watch include overager Brendan Ranford and Chase Souto, who in addition to sharing a first name with Portland Winterhawk Chase De Leo, also hails from California. In last year's playoffs, the Kamloops Blazers and the Winterhawks faced off in a 7-game playoff series that ended the Blazers season and their hope of a Western Conference title. They return to Portland tomorrow night to renew the rivalry. I have a feeling this one just may go to a shootout...stay tuned on winterhawks.com at 7 pm this Wednesday if you want to see how it all turns out.  

Tuesday morning update: Kelowna and Kamloops faced off in a fierce division rivalry on Monday night that resulted in a 6-5 OT win for the Blazers on home ice. The usual suspects hit the scoresheet: Lipon, Smith, Bell, Sissons, Ully, Ranford, Bozon and Rigby. If you only have time to tune in to one division rivalry this season, make it this one. 

European influence. European players are coming on strong in the stretch run, including Danish rookie Oliver Bjorkstrand (first rookie to reach 20 goals, leading all rookies with 40 points), the aforementioned Swiss import Tim Bozon with 66 points in 49 games played, and Victoria Royals' left winger Alex Gogolev, a Russian who was named CHL Player of the Week on January 22 after recording 12 points in four games over the course of the previous week. He is the first Victoria Royals player to receive that honor, which went nicely with being named WHL Player of the Week the day before. One of his more ridiculous, high-scoring games happened on January 19, when he notched four points to lead the team to a 5-4 win over the Kamloops Blazers. In addition to Bjorkstrand and Gogolev, I would advise making note of Winterhawks' rookie defenseman Kirill Vorobev. He's still learning the ropes, so I'd put this one on your future watch list; he's one of the most polite and friendly players on the Winterhawks roster, and a player to watch in coming years.

'Tips of the Hat. To the Everett Silvertips. If you don't currently think this team is a force to be reckoned with, give them a few years. They have been trading left and right to acquire prime future draft picks, including some nice litle prizes they got for parting ways with the rights to Seth Jones when he opted to play in Portland. I like Tyler Sandhu, Manraj Hayer and Josh Winquist for my money.  Hayer and Winquist are Everett's version of a very scary two-headed monster, and they don't mess around either; watch them play and you'll see they are all business when scoring. Tune out now if you want, but I suggest turning the dial back up on the Everett Silvertips at the start of next season; something tells me it will be worth it.

Double edged sword. The Saskatoon Blades will host the 2013 Memorial Cup, but you wouldn't know it by looking at their current state of affairs. But things are looking up. They made one of the biggest trades in the Dub on deadline day, acquiring Calgary Flames prospect Michael Ferland from the Brandon Wheat Kings. He didn't come cheap -- the team dealt their 1st round pick in the 2013 Bantam Draft in return -- but it was the loudest of the signals that they are preparing for a strong finish to the season. On deadline day, they also acquired Collin Valcourt from Spokane and Erik Benoit from the Kootenay Ice.  This past weekend, blanked the Moose Jaw Warriors 5-0 with goals from five different players, including Valcourt and Benoit. Looks like somebody's making a move and that sombody happens to be this year's Memorial Cup host. I like a good late game surge by the underdog, so I'll be very interested to see what the second half of the season brings for the Blades, when desperation starts to serve as inspiration and those draft day picks start to pay off. 

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com