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Rockets' season grounded by Winterhawks
It wasn't the way Jordon Cooke envisioned ending his days in junior hockey.
The 20-year-old goaltender and his Kelowna Rockets watched their 2013-14 WHL come to an abrupt conclusion Friday night at Prospera Place, as the Portland Winterhawks scored a 7-3 victory to claim the Western Conference final series four games to one.
The Rockets, who set a regular-season club record with 57 wins, won the opening game of the series, but couldn't maintain the momentum against the high-powered Winterhawks who are off to the WHL final for the fourth consecutive season.
Cooke, who spent four seasons in Rockets uniform, said his club was simply outplayed by an experienced, skilled and playoff-hardened team—led by the likes of Nic Petan, Derrick Pouliot, Taylor Leier and Brendan Leipsic.
"They know how to play in playoffs, they've been in the finals three years in a row, they know what it takes to get there," said Cooke, the Rockets' player of the year. "They outcompeted us pretty much every game. They took it to us."
In Game 5, the Rockets faced an uphill climb from the start as Portland scored twice in the opening period, then pushed the lead to three with a power play goal by Taylor Leier just 24 seconds into the second period.
But the Rockets pushed back, getting second-period power play goals from Tyson Baillie and Jesse Lees to energize and give hope to the sellout crowd of 6,331 at Prospera Place.
However, the would-be comeback was emphatically rebuffed by the Winterhawks who erupted for four straight goals in a span of 7:23 in the third period.
In the end, Rockets head coach Ryan Huska said his team didn't match the Winterhawks' will to win.
"I hate to say it, but we got out-competed," said Huska. "You can stomach being out skilled, hey, that's the way it is sometimes, some guys are blessed with more skill. The hard part that we're more disappointed about is that we didn't have enough compete in a lot of the games."
Still, despite the disappointing final result, Huska said his team made some positive strides and learned some important lessons in 2013-14.
"We had a good year," said Huska, whose team also established a franchise record with 118 points. "I think we took another step from what we did last year. I saw for two rounds in the playoffs we raised our level a bit. Now this needs to be another lesson learned for us that it's not enough."
Along with Marek Tvrdon and the injured Myles Bell, Cooke is among the three 20-year-old players who will graduate from the Rockets' program.
Cooke, a Leduc, Alta. native, considers himself fortunate to have had a hand in two B.C. Division titles, a WHL regular season championship, and an eye-popping 119 wins over the last two years.
"It's a great team, I'm definitely blessed to leave with a team like that," an emotional, red-eyed Cooke said after the game. "They're a great group of guys, they became my brothers and it's definitely not easy to leave."
"It's been fun," he added. "We've had our ups and downs and I've been very blessed that my two starting years, we've had unbelievable seasons and took over the records. We have a couple of banners up there, so that's a nice note to leave on."
The Winterhawks will move on to meet the winner of the Edmonton Oil Kings-Medicine Hat Tigers series in the WHL final.