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Junior hockey: Kelowna Rockets anxious to see, play Portland Winterhawks

For the first time in what seems like forever, the Kelowna Rockets will face a team that isn’t from B.C.

The Portland Winterhawks (4-6-0-1) will visit Prospera Place on Friday for an evening tilt against the Rockets. Game time is 7:05 p.m.

Kelowna (4-3-0-0) has played seven games so far this season, and all have been against fellow B.C. Division teams.

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In fact, going back to the shortened hub season played earlier this year, the Rockets only saw action against B.C. teams.

And the last time Kelowna played a team from outside the province was Saturday, March 7, 2020, when the Rockets edged the visiting Lethbridge Hurricanes.

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And the day before that, March 6, 2020, Kelowna blanked the visiting Seattle Thunderbirds 6-0.

“It’ll be exciting for our players,” Rockets president and GM Bruce Hamilton said of seeing different opposition. “We didn’t see them in the hub and I think it’ll be good for our fans.”

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Portland has been a marquee franchise, and, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, had made the playoffs 10 straight years, including four straight trips to the league final (2011-14).

During the 2019-20 season, which was cancelled because of the pandemic, Portland was in first place in the U.S. Division with a record of 45-11-3-4 and 97 points.

This season, though, the Winterhawks have had a tough start. They enter Kelowna having lost four of their last five games, including a 7-1 bashing in Kamloops on Friday night. They’ve also been outscored 22-11 during that stretch.

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Stats aside, Hamilton is expecting a good game, but noted that health capacity restrictions will still likely be in effect for Friday’s contest, meaning only a maximum of 3,400 fans will be in attendance.

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During the 2019-20 season, Kelowna hosted Portland in back-to-back games at Prospera Place. Attendance at both games were 5,003 and 5,020, respectively. Portland swept that set, winning 7-3 and 4-2.

“They’ll be a good test for us and I’m sure they’ll be ready to play (Friday)” said Hamilton.

“It’ll be sad if we’re still likely restricted, especially when we have a team like this coming in. They only visit twice year.”

At season’s beginning, the border was still closed. Now, though, junior hockey teams are allowed to cross, though they have to submit PCR tests when entering or returning to Canada.

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The Rockets’ first trip into the U.S. will be later this month, when they play two games in Portland on Nov. 19-20, then one in Spokane on Nov. 24.

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According to Hamilton, his players will have to be tested 72 hours prior to returning to Canada.

On Wednesday night, in a wild affair, Kelowna rallied to defeat the Vancouver Giants 7-6 in overtime.

The Rockets gave up the first goal, just 53 seconds into the game, but led 3-1 just seven minutes later. However, seven minutes later, the Giants were leading 4-3.

Vancouver then held leads of 5-3, 5-4 and 6-4 before Keowna responded with three unanswered goals for the win.

The Rockets made it 6-5 at 9:36 of the third, then tied it at 19:21 with a power-play goal, a top-shelf wrister from the blue-line. Andrew Cristall potted the game-winning goal, a five-hole shot at 2:09 of overtime. Kelowna outshot Vancouver 40-26.

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“It was an exciting game in the sense that we came back and won it in overtime,” said Hamilton. “But I don’t think our head coach is very excited about the way we played. But we found a way to win, which is important.

“We saw some emotion from our guys, which is also important, but we’re not going to win a lot of games 7-6 this year.”

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