The NHL lockout may leave local fans hungering for hockey action, but if the opening weekend of the Victoria Royals is any sign, the local Western Hockey League team will fill in just fine, thank you very much. The second-year team swept a weekend set of games against B.C. rivals the Vancouver Giants, looking much improved from last year’s squad.
Entering their second year after transferring from Chilliwack, the Royals are looking to improve upon their seventh-place finishing in the Western Division last year, where they were swept out of the playoffs by the Kamloops Blazers in the first round.
The Sept. 21 game in Vancouver was an exciting affair as the Royals held on for a 6–4 win in front of more than 7500-plus fans in the Pacific Coliseum. Victoria never trailed in the game and saw solid efforts from three new players, goalie Patrik Polivka, Russian sniper Alex Gogolev and former Bantam first-round draft pick Joe Hicketts, a 16-year-old who is being given lots of ice time.
Despite the 6–4 score, a significant improvement in goal was noticed. Polivka, a Polish import and an 18-year-old standout from the Czech Republic, was noticeably sharp in his North American debut. He plays the angles well and is very flexible. He directed rebounds to the corners with ease.
Five-foot-eight rookie Joe Hicketts looked solid in the effort, finishing off plus two and scoring his first WHL goal on a power-play shot from the point that got through several players in front. Hicketts also looked more than capable in shutting down players much bigger than him. An active stick and smart decision-making make this player one to watch.
Gogolev, a 20-year-old pre-season trade acquisition from Red Deer, was responsible for three assists and looks to be a player who can handle the puck very deftly.
Other than a late third push from the home team, desperate to rouse the quiet opening-night audience, the Giants were lacklustre in their home opener. Giants goalie Liam Liston wasn’t particularly sharp, making only 12 saves on 17 shots.
The Sept. 22 game in front of a boisterous 6500 fans was pretty much all Victoria until the last 10 minutes of the third, when Vancouver pushed hard to equalize. But like the night before, Victoria held on and was able to leave the opening weekend with two victories after a 3–2 win where Polivka again looked very solid and the offence spread the puck around as six different players hit the score sheet.
Victoria brought in famed “O Canada” singer Mark Donnelly to celebrate the opener, and when the 6500-plus fans joined in, Victoria’s excitement to have the Royals back for 2012–13 was palpable.
Holding 1–0 and 2–0 leads, the Royals were 1 for 4 on the power-play while Vancouver was 0 for 4. Gogolev was the first star of the game. His first goal of the season held up to be the winner.
Polivka, playing in front of Victoria fans for the first time, summed up the feelings of several Royals players discussing the crowd when he said, “One word: awesome!”
On Sept. 28 and Sept. 30, the Royals play host to a Kamloops team with some form of revenge on their minds after being swept in last year’s playoffs by the Blazers. Kamloops was given an honourable mention for the Canadian Hockey League’s first Top 10 rankings of the season and are looking to dominate the B.C. Division.
Game times are 7 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Sunday. For tickets visit www.victoriaroyals.com or call 250-220-7777.