The Kelowna Rockets have their work cut out for them this weekend.
Kelowna will visit the Portland Winterhawks this Friday and Saturday, with both games taking place at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
In Western Conference standings, the Rockets (3-6-1-0) are languishing near the bottom of the 10-team pack in eighth place, while Portland (7-1-0-0) is second after a stellar start to the season.
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Further, not only is Kelowna riding a four-game losing streak, but they’ll be in Oregon without two key players: captain Colton Dach (concussion protocol) and defenceman Elias Carmichael (sprained ankle).
Oh, and by the way, Kelowna lost its season-opening game to Portland on Sept. 24, a 6-5 overtime decision at Prospera Place. In that game, the Winterhawks rallied from a 5-3 deficit by scoring twice in the final five minutes to force overtime.
Dach was on the bench during Wednesday’s practice, but could only watch his team prepare for Portland.
“Colton won’t be making the trip to Portland and neither will Elias,” Rockets president and general manager Bruce Hamilton told Global News.
Dach told Global News he’s feeling good, but is still undergoing concussion protocol following a neutral-zone hit two weeks ago. The hit occurred late in the third period of a 5-4 loss to the Everett Silvertips on Oct. 14.
“We’re going to be safer than you would be with anybody,” said Hamilton, adding it’s Dach’s second concussion this season.
Dach’s first concussion happened on Sept. 19, during a game, while attending the Chicago Blackhawks’ training camp.
“So we are waiting, and, until he’s 100 per cent, he’s not going back in,” Hamilton added.
That means Kelowna will rely heavily on Andrew Cristall (10 games, 7 goals, 8 assists) to put up points in Portland and count on Caden Price (10g, 1g, 7a) to help shut down the high-flying Winterhawks.
Both 17-year-olds recently earned ‘B’ rankings by NHL Central Scouting, meaning they’re both possible second-round or third-round picks in next year’s NHL entry draft.
“I would think, at the start, they were both probably looked upon as ‘A’ class guys,” said Hamilton, adding he thinks they’ll return there once the team gets going.
Winning back-to-back games against Portland this weekend could go a long way in getting the Rockets heading the right way.
“We’ve got to make better puck decisions when we’re coming out of our zone or entering our zone,” said Kelowna head coach Kris Mallette. “We’ve got to be a lot stronger on one-on-ones. We need the goalies to be the difference in the game, and our guys need to play hard.
“Portland is going to play one way: Full-speed ahead, long stretch passes all night long. Our defence has to be sharp, and our forwards are going to have t come back into our end of the rink.”