© Copyright - 2017 - Victoria Sports News
Will the Victoria Royals go deeper in the playoffs this year, than they did in 2016? Last season, they were the surprise team of the Western Hockey League with a first place regular season record of 50-16-3-3. They were third in goals scored with 281 and first in goals against with a stingy 166, but their post-season was cut short.
They lost to the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL semi-final in a come-from-behind overtime victory at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in game seven; it was a heartbreaker.
During the regular season they appeared to be a favourite going into post-season play. They racked up a hot streak at one point that saw them go 13-0-1-0 and finished the regular season storming into the playoffs with 10 consecutive wins.
The Royals had an exciting, offensive and two-way team of fast skaters, prolific goal scorers and the best goaltending tandem in the league.
With 24 games remaining in the regular season, they are on a hot streak as they sport a record of 9-3 in their past 12 games. They are also 3-0 on their current five-game road swing that has seen them defeat the Vancouver Giants 3-0 on Jan 17, Edmonton Oil Kings two nights later by the score of 6-3 and Fri, Matthew Phillips and company skated to a 7-2 victory over of the Calgary Hitmen.
All teams on this road trip are below them in the standings and are playing under .500 hockey, but are desperate for wins. They are teams that should be difficult to play.
It just so happens that Phillips, who has scored back-to-back hat-tricks, is a Calgary native and a Flames draft pick. Playing in his home province and in front of the NHL that drafted him was likely very motivational.
He is the baby-faced assassin.
Phillips has crept up the league points race leaderboard and currently sits in 8th position with 35 goals and 24 assists for a total of 59 points in 46 games.
During his rookie campaign, where he earned WHL Rookie of the Year honours, he didn’t shy away from the front of the net and at 5’6” and 137 pounds he was the smallest player on the ice, but he amassed 76 points with 37 goals and 39 assists, playing in the full 72-game regular season. He was fourth in team scoring, in an offensively potent forward group. This year he leads the Royals in goals and points.
He is slick, turns on a dime, has a nose for the net and is crafty as both a passer and a shooter.
Earlier in the season, when the Royals were struggling a little, Coach Dave Lowry said, “I hope that some of the guys on the bench are watching where he [Phillips] is scoring those goals from and noticing his work ethic.”
Phillips rarely takes a shift off. Now that he has been drafted by the Flames, he cannot afford to let up, not that he ever would. Now listed at 141 pounds on the team’s program, he is still the smallest player in the Western Hockey League and potentially the Canadian Hockey League, the parent of all three Major Junior Leagues that include the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Phillips scores at the right time. Several times this year, shortly after being manhandled by larger players, he turned around and slipped the puck into the net, taking any momentum that his opponent may have had at that time.
Friday, he scored at the 29-second mark of the second period. First the Royals held the Hitmen to just four shots during the opening period and scored three of their own, one by Phillips, then to quell any potential post-dressing room speech motivation, he scored immediately.
He capped his hat-trick off with a goal at 16:51 of the third. He had a four-point night, earning first star honours.
He scored the game winner in Edmonton at 17:33 of the second period. Tyler Soy assisted on all three goals in Edmonton and two of Phillips’ three in Calgary.
Has Soy made a slight role change this season? He missed 15 games due to injury, yet he sits 52nd in the league points race with 19 goals and 23 assists for a total of 42 points. Last year he was known for his ability to barge to the net with a player draped all over him, ala Todd Bertuzzi (albeit smaller) one-handing the puck in. Last year he was second in team points and 13th overall with 46 goals and 39 assists for 85 total points. He was labelled as a goal scorer. This year he seems to have added skill to his passing game.
This year, the Royals who are still offensively gifted, miss Alex Forsberg, who played with great chemistry alongside Phillips to lead the team in points. They also feel the loss of Joe Hicketts on defense and Coleman Vollrath in goal, two of the league’s premiere players.
In goal, Griffen Outhouse, who led the led the league in goals against average during his rookie campaign last year, is playing lights out again this season and now owns the franchise record for most career shutouts. After the Royals were embarrassed at home by the Kelowna Rockets 9-2 on Jan 13, Outhouse has let in just five goals in four games including back-to-back shutouts of the Moose Jaw Warriors, a talented team, as well as the Giants in Vancouver. Outhouse has stood on his head since, earning 1.25 goals against average during those four games.
Outhouse is a workhorse, as he leads the league in games played with 44 already this season. He is fourth in the league with a goals against average of 2.66, while he owns the third best save percentage at .921. He is acrobatic, lightning fast with his reflexes and moves into position to cut down angles faster than any goalie in the league.
No forward shall pass.
The player with the coolest name in hockey, Chaz Reddekopp, is a draft pick of the LA Kings. He is a large, hard-hitting defenseman, who has found some scoring touch this season. In 41 games played so far, he sits ninth out of all WHL rearguards with 9 goals and 28 assists for 37 points. The 6’4” 221-pound West Kelowna native hasn’t backed down on the hitting either, laying out bodies, especially on entry at the blueline.
Last year he had just four goals all season and finished as 40th in the league with 30 points.
Not to be overlooked for his contribution is Jack Walker, the 20-year-old Fargo, ND native is a Toronto Maple Leaf pick, who possesses slick skills and is potentially the fastest skating forward in the league. He is 25th in the league and second on the team this year in points with 51. He was third in team points last year, right behind Soy with 84.
There are other contributors who are important to the team’s ability to play well during the final stretch and into the post season including the improved play and production of Dante Hannoun, Ryan Peckford and Regan Nagy up front. Big Russian Vladimir Bobylev’s return from the KHL has helped the team and the Maple Leafs’ ranking of their draft pick, he is playing well and getting more ice-time than he was with the pros.
On defense the team is strong, but replacing Hicketts is nearly impossible. Russian defenseman Marsel Ibragimov seems to have upped his hitting game, while the rest of the line-up looks solid including Ryan Gagnon with his increased production.
The only weak link on the team is depth in goal, with very young and inexperienced rookie backup Dean McNabb called in for duty. So far, the only game time that he has had is a two-minute stretch during the 9-2 loss to the Rockets, where he let in two goals on four shots. It was a rude introduction to the WHL.
Lowry admitted that it may have been early to put him in between the pipes, “Perhaps I shouldn’t have put him in then, but he is going to have to play on the road coming up and he needed to get a taste of WHL hockey.”
There are two games left in this road trip.
Lowry has the decision to either play him in Red Deer, who are playing just .500 hockey and are not scoring or in Vancouver, who will be eager to defeat the Royals after being shutout in their own building last week.
Will the Royals do damage in the playoffs? First they need to make the post-season and then they need to figure out how to defeat the Kelowna Rockets and Prince George Cougars consistently. The Royals did defeat the Rockets 3-2 on December 30th but are just 2-4 against them this season including that stinging 9-2 loss.
“We have to put the loss behind us, like in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter how much you lose by, you lost. You need to be ready for the next game.”
The Royals have done that as they lost their first three games this season to the Cougars, but now are 4-4 against them.
The final stretch towards the playoffs will be an exciting time to watch the Royals to see if they truly have all the right pieces to be a playoff team.