The Western Hockey League club arrived back on the Island having gone 2-3-1 on an expansive road swing that took it through eastern Washington state, the Kootenays and Alberta.
Of some concern, however, was going 0-2-1 over the last three games and injuries to starting goaltender Patrik Polivka and captain Tyler Stahl.
The journey concluded Sunday with a 5-2 loss against the defending WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings before 8,910 satisfied customers at Rexall Place. The Oil Kings, who followed up Sunday’s win with a 6-1 victory over Prince George on Monday, now have a Eastern Conference-leading record of 43-12-5.
“They [Oil Kings] showed why they are one of the top teams in the league,” said Royals head coach Dave Lowry.
Victoria led 2-0 after the first period on breakaway goals by Jamie Crooks, from nearby Vermilion, Alta., with his 29th of the season, and Florida Panthers-prospect Steven Hodges, with his 25th.
But it was all Edmonton all the time after that in a game in which the hosts easily outshot the visitors 38-19.
“We had a solid first period, playing the way we wanted to play. But then [Edmonton] took over,” said Lowry, of the battle of provincial capitals.
Leading the Oil Kings’ five-unanswered-goals onslaught was Michael St. Croix with two goals.
Hodges, with a goal and an assist, and Edmonton-native Brandon Magee, with two assists, led Victoria with two points each.
“They [Oil Kings] are older and more skilled,” noted Lowry.
“And they have made a few deals this season [like acquiring defenceman and 2011 NHL second-round Edmonton Oilers draft-pick David Musil from the Vancouver Giants]. They are gunning for it all this year. They are a very good team that is deep, well balanced and with good goaltending.”
Polivka, who tweaked something in his lower body in the shootout of Friday’s 2-1 losing decision in Red Deer, was not dressed Sunday for the second straight game following up from his sideline seat in Saturday night’s 3-1 Royals loss in Calgary.
The Royals started rookie goaltender and Calgary native Coleman Vollrath for the second consecutive game. He was harried in making 32 saves and allowing five goals in Edmonton.
Royals goaltending prospect Michael Herringer from the Comox Valley was called up from the Victoria Cougars Junior B team to back up Vollrath. Herringer mopped up Sunday, making his WHL debut by playing the final 13:22 of the third period, making one save and allowing no goals.
Lowry said Polivka’s injury is day-to-day.
As is the one to blueliner Stahl, who was helped off the Rexall Place ice Sunday after taking a hard slapshot off the knee.
Both players will be re-evaluated this week.
It’s a good thing then for the Royals that they get a bit of a respite before playing the Kelowna Rockets on Friday night at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre to open a five-game home stand.
The Royals (32-22-5) remain in a fifth-place tie with the Tri-City Americans in the Western Conference standings, although the Americans hold a game in hand, which they will play today against the lowly Vancouver Giants.
The Royals and Americans are one point behind the fourth-place Spokane Chiefs. The Royals hold a game in hand on the Chiefs following Spokane’s 8-3 loss against the powerful Portland Winter Hawks on Monday.
The race between this trio of mid-pack teams is not merely academic. With fourth place comes home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The fifth-place finisher will at least get the perk of avoiding the Big Three of the Western Conference — the CHL nationally top-10-ranked Winter Hawks, Kelowna Rockets or Kamloops Blazers in the post-season first round.
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