In many ways, 2014-15 is just beginning for the Victoria Royals.
The question of making the playoffs was answered by the Royals many weeks ago; the Royals all but secured a playoff berth behind the powerhouse Kelowna Rockets but comfortably ahead of a pack of third-place squads. However, the Royals have loftier goals in mind and are no longer pleased with simply making the playoffs. After falling in the second round of the WHL playoffs in 2013-14, the Victoria Royals are poised to build on last season’s successes and begin a lengthy playoff run this year.
The Royals finished the regular season with a record of 39-29-4, nine wins short of their total from last season but good enough for second in the B.C division of the WHL’s Western Conference. In the Western Conference quarterfinals, the Royals will face the third-place Prince George Cougars who trailed the Royals for the majority of the season and finished the regular season 15 points back of the Royals.
The WHL landscape was dramatically altered when the already powerful Kelowna Rockets traded for two legitimate NHL talents in defenceman Josh Morrissey and centre Leon Draisaitl. The two have featured prominently on the Rockets since their trades and make the team a formidable favourite to win the WHL championship and advance to the Memorial Cup.
The Rockets finished the regular season an astounding 40 games over .500 with a record of 53-13-6 and, like the Royals, have known that their playoff fate was secure for months. If the Royals and the Rockets are both successful in their first-round matchups, they will face each other in the second round of the WHL playoffs, a matchup that is surely in the minds of most Royals’ fans.
However, before the Royals have the opportunity to face off against the Rockets, they must defeat the Cougars in quarterfinals and cannot afford to overlook their first opponent. The Cougars enter the playoffs with points in seven of their past 10 games and recently split a pair of games against the Royals on March 6 and 7.
The Royals and Cougars are both without elite scorers and instead rely on offense-by-committee. Neither the Cougars nor the Royals feature a top-20 player in WHL scoring, with the Cougars leading scorer Jansen Harkins and the Royals leading scorer Austin Carroll sitting 21st and 22nd, respectively.
If the Royals must focus on one Cougars player in particular, Harkins is a great place to start. Harkins, the leading scorer on the Cougars, is draft-eligible this year and is considered to be a fairly safe bet as a first-round pick. Harkins is a cerebral, defensively responsible, pass-first centre who has the ability to find teammates in traffic with precision passing. If Harkins was surrounded with more talented finishers, there’s no doubt that his point total would be right there with the WHL’s leaders.
The Royals have a number of veterans throughout their lineup and will have to lean on this leadership to guide them past the Cougars. Included in this group are Carroll, captain Brandon Magee, defenceman and World Junior Championship alumnus Joe Hicketts, and former Calgary Hitmen Greg Chase, all of whom have played in numerous playoff games throughout their junior careers.
Overall, the Royals have controlled the season series against the Cougars, winning five out of eight meetings this season, outscoring the Cougars 30-20 in those eight games. It is worth noting that the Cougars will endeavour to make this series a nasty one if possible, as Prince George led the WHL in penalty-minutes with 1310. This works out to an average of over 18 minutes in penalties each game this regular season for the Cougars, roughly five minutes more per game than the Royals’ average of 999 minutes through 72 games.
The Royals enter round one as prohibitive favourites against the Cougars but will be facing an underdog squad playing with the reckless abandon of having little to no expectations of playoff success.
Game one and two against the Cougars are on March 27 and 28 at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Arena. Both games start at 7:05 p.m. Student tickets are available for $17.
Here is a video of Joe Hicketts scoring an overtime winner from earlier this season: