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Familiar foes face off in WHL playoffs

Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers meet in the first round for the 2nd straight year
Marissa Baecker/Shoot the Breeze Kelowna Rockets forwards Calvin Thurkauf (left) and Nick Merkley (right) are on a collsion course with Dawson Davidson and the Kamloops Blazers in the first round of the WHL playoffs beginning Friday.

Talk about knowing your opponent.

Since the beginning of the 2015-16 Western Hockey League season, the Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers have gone head to head 27 times.

And the longtime B.C. Division rivals aren’t done yet.

The clubs will meet in the opening round of the postseason for the second straight year when the teams face off Friday night at Prospera Place.

Last spring’s playoff tilt went the distance, with the Rockets scoring the winner in overtime in Game 7.

The Blazers held the edge during the 2016-17 regular campaign, taking six of 10 games. But the Rockets closed out the season series with a convincing 8-2 victory Feb. 24 in Kamloops.

Rockets’ defenceman Lucas Johansen said the stage has been set for an intense and exciting series between two hardened rivals.

“They’re a good team, they’ve shown us they can beat us, so it’s going to be a fun week of preparing to play them,” Johansen said of the Blazers. “It’s going to be a war out there.

“We know the (Blazers) are going to play hard for each other and try and answer back from last year,” he added. “We’re going to have to match that and better it, and try and win this in less than seven games this time.”

Few are more familiar with the storied Kelowna-Kamloops rivalry than Don Hay, now in his 17th season as head coach of the Blazers.

While facing the Rockets at playoff time is rarely an easy task, Hay said his club is excited to take on the challenge.

“It’s a great rivalry between two teams and two cities,” said Hay, whose Blazers finished five points back of the Rockers for second in the B.C. Division. “We’ve had some really good games over the last couple of seasons, I think both teams learned and grew from the experience of that seven-game series last year.

“I think both teams had good games against each during the season series, so both can say we have confidence coming in. I think it’ll be a great series.”

With nine wins in their last 10 games—and 18 of the last 22—the Rockets head into the postseason playing their best hockey of 2016-17.

Healthy and on a roll, club president and GM Bruce Hamilton likes how the playoffs are setting up for first-year head coach Jason Smith and his Rockets.

“I’m thrilled for our team, we had a wonderful finish,” Hamilton said. “From six weeks ago until now we’ve been one of the best teams in the league.

“I think our guys deserve a lot of credit for gutting it out and sticking with the plan. We got healthy at the right time and now going into the playoffs we’ll have everybody healthy and ready to play.”

Still, Hamilton knows the Blazers will come in well-prepared by their bench boss.

“(Don’s) been coaching in the league for more than 20 years, and he’s going to bring in a team that’s going to play very disciplined, very hard, and they’ll be well-coached and they’ll have good patience in their game too,” Hamilton said.

“I think it’ll be a great series, it’ll be hard fought, old-time hockey, with lots of body contact.

“We’re going to play tough and that’s how it’s going to be.”

Kelowna Rockets vs Kamloops Blazers

Friday, March 24 @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m

Saturday, March 25 @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m.

Tuesday, March 28 @ Kamloops 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, March 29 @ Kamloops. 7:00 p.m.

Friday, March 31 @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m. *

Sunday, April 2 @ Kamloops 7:00 p.m. *

Tuesday, April 4 @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m. *

* If necessary

Fan bus…

A bus for Kelowna Rockets fans has been organized for Games 3 and 4 of the series in Kamloops, Tuesday, March 29 and Wednesday, March 29.

The cost is $50 per game and includes the bus trip and game ticket. The bus will leave Prospera Place at 4 p.m. sharp.

For more information, contact Chantelle LaBrie at