Stingy Rockets Kick off Preseason in Fine Style
by Dana Soleski - September 13, 2004
For a team that set a seemingly insurmountable record by allowing 125 measly goals in a 72-game season a year ago, back-to-back shutouts against an arch-rival to open this year's pre-season slate may not be that remarkable. However, the fact that the feat was accomplished with 13 rookies making their WHL debuts is a solid 'thumbs-up' in early reviews for the clubs' bevy of young talent.
On Friday night at Prospera Place, rookie netminder Kristopher Westbloom entertained with a sparkling 25-save performance while Latvian newcomer Laurus Darzins scored twice in leading the Rockets to a 3-0 win over Kamloops. The 6'2" Westbloom's steady, calm performance validated the enthusiasm amoung club officials for the potential of their 2002 4th round Bantam Draft selection. This guy definitely has a future ahead of him.
"It was definitely exciting picking up a shutout in my first game," said the Meadow Lake Saskatchewan native who turned aside 25 shots on the night. "I tried to come into camp as prepared as I could. We have a talented team and the guys really helped me out on Friday."
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Darzins displayed a goal-scorer's flare while teaming with sophomores Nolan Waker and Brett Howarth on the clubs most effective line on Friday. On his first goal, Darzins parked in the goalmouth and deflected home a Kyle Cumiskey point drive. On the second, he blasted home a one-timer from the high slot after a nice feed from Michal Blanar. Potential overage defenseman Gio Flamminio - a Prince Albert native who joined the Rockets recently after leaving Ferris State University - played a solid game on Friday and was particularly effective playing the left point on power play. A spot in the starting line-up looms for Flamminio particularly if Josh Gorges turns pro as expected.
The return match in Kamloops Saturday night was definitely the Troy Ofunkany show. In his hometown, Troy scored a pretty, breakaway goal and added an assist before a slew of friends and family. Not to be outdone, sophomore goalie Derek Yeomans answered the bell with a shutout of his own as the Rockets cruised to a 4-0 win.
"I played much better on Saturday than I did Friday," said Ofukany who scored 80 goals in 64 games as a Midget last year. "On Friday I was nervous - it was my first WHL game, plus we were playing Kamloops. Last night I had more legs and I played with way more confidence."
After pestering the Blazers' defenseman at the Rockets' blueline, Ofukany stole the puck and raced in alone before his sweet backhand-forehand deke fooled the Kamloops' netminder. Offensive output is something the Rockets hope to improve on this season and from the looks of things thus far, they're certainly on the right track.
"We have a lot of 16 and 17-year-olds that are really talented," says veteran Mike Card whose point shot was deflected in by sophomore Chris Ray to open the scoring on Saturday. "They're not towering guys for sure but they bring so much speed and skill. Speed is something we've built around the past few seasons and anytime you can add more firepower it sure helps."
"I'm confident I can contribute offensively this year," says Ofukany. "But I also need to play an aggressive game and hit to be effective. I'm still getting used to being on the ice every day and the level of conditioning necessary. I'm used to 3 practices a week but here we're on the ice every day."
Rookie Craig Cuthbert - the fiesty and talented brother of former Captain Ryan - closed out the scoring on Saturday night while Kelowna-native Jordan Cheveldave scored as well. Brandon Weber - brother of teammate Shea - got on the scoresheet with a lively scrap against the Blazers' 6'5" Benn Olson on Friday and acquitted himself quite well.
The Rockets will practice this week in preparation for a weekend double-header vs. Vancouver. Head Coach Jeff Truitt will have his work cut out for him as he attempts to pare the roster in time for the September 24th season opener.