The Kelowna Rockets wrapped up their shortened season on a high note Wednesday, narrowly defeating the Victoria Royals 3-2.
The Rockets had the Royals’ number all season long, winning all four meetings and outscoring Victoria 20-5 in the process.
The win pushed Kelowna’s record to 10-5-1-0 despite losing 17 days of hockey and eight games following positive COVID-19 tests in March.
“They did a marvellous job, and the credit goes to the players and the billets because they literally shut down their lives to accommodate these guys,” Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton told Global News.
Kelowna head coach Kris Mallette admits he was equally impressed with this year’s team effort.
“I knew we would have success if our players were able to buy in, and I think that they did an admirable job,” Mallette said.
That ‘buy in’ allowed the Rockets to post a game-winning percentage of .656 — second only to the B.C. Division champion Kamloops Blazers (18-4-0-0).
But perhaps the biggest surprise of all was Kelowna’s improved offence, with the Rockets tallying 58 goals in just 16 games.
Last season, the Rockets averaged 2.87 goals a game (181 goals in 63 games). This year’s average was 3.62.
“From a hockey perspective, we are really excited,” said Hamilton. “We had some young players we didn’t know a lot about, so some really good things for us.”
One of those young players that Hamilton says is going to be exciting for the franchise and fans is rookie Andrew Cristall.
“When our fans see this guy, they’re going to understand we got something pretty special in him,” Hamilton said of Cristall, who had 2 goals and 3 points in 14 games.
Right from the start, though, Hamilton and Mallette maintained that the shortened season was a chance for players to audition for next season.
And now the team has some tough decisions to make when it comes to next season’s over-age players.
“We’ve got two goalies and two defencemen and two forwards that are all competing for three coveted spots,” Mallette said.
One player who’ll be tough to overlook is Mark Liwiski, who had a career year this season.
“He scored 9 goals — that’s 9 goals in 16 games, and he’s a physical player each and every time,” Mallette said.
But it won’t just be older players fighting for a place on the team in 2021-22
“There are probably four or five kids that weren’t here that are going to be on our team for next year,” Hamilton admitted.
“There’s going to be more than just a challenge for the over-age spots.”
So as the players get set to head home, the post-mortem examination of the season will start, along with the planning for next season.