The Victoria Royals will attempt to shake off the rust from the Christmas break and ring out 2012 with a pair of victories over the visiting Prince George Cougars this weekend.
Back from holiday hiatus, the Western Hockey League clubs begin the first of a two-game set tonight at 7 at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, with the 17-14-0-2 Royals looking to improve on their lot in life in the Western Conference.
“We’re not too many points behind Kelowna and Tri-City,” said Royals veteran Brandon Magee. “We’ve got a big one coming up on Jan. 2 against Kelowna and that’s going to be a huge game, but obviously Prince George, here this weekend, is what we’re focused on.
“Trying to separate ourselves from them is going to be huge,” added Magee of the sixth-place Royals, who are seven points in arrears to Tri-City with two games in hand. Victoria is also two points up on Seattle with two games in hand and eight ahead of the Cougars as 2012 comes to a head.
“It’s always good to go into the new year with a win or two,” said Magee. “It should be a good weekend. Both teams are coming off Christmas break, well rested, so it should be a good weekend.”
The Royals got back together on Wednesday evening before returning to the ice again Thursday morning for another practice. The Cougars, meanwhile, regrouped in Vancouver with travel forcing some players in late Wednesday.
Prince George ferried across Thursday morning before following the Royals out for their first post-turkey skate.
“I think it’s an advantage starting right back up at home, where they have to travel,” offered Magee. “It gave us a chance to get on the ice. Getting back was fun — it was a hard practice, but much needed.
“Pretty much every game here on out is going to be a battle,” added Magee. “Everyone is looking for a playoff spot and if you’re already there, you’re looking to solidify your spot and finish higher where you don’t have to play a Portland or Kamloops in the first round. Being in the fourth or fifth spot is definitely where you want to be, if not higher than that.”
In the Cougars, the Royals will be facing a team that won two straight off Vancouver prior to the break.
“We’ve got to stretch our legs, our lungs and hopefully our minds a little bit,” said Cougars head coach Dean Clark. “This is a rink that we’ve always seemed to play well in.
“We need to be a little bit better at finding ways to win games. For a period of time we were finding ways not to. This game is all about results and we have to, hopefully, come together a little bit better.”
The Cougars managed a split in Victoria the last time around and are looking for nothing less to end 2012.
“I think we’re a better team than what our record is,” Clark said of his 12-18-1-3 Cougars.
“Obviously, we got ourselves back into eighth, tied with Everett, and we have to see if we can catch other teams in the conference as well,” said Clark, who is looking for more consistency in scoring goals.
Meanwhile, Royals’ bench boss Dave Lowry just wants to see a consistent competitive level from his squad.
“Obviously, in the second half, games get tighter, everybody starts jockeying for position and we want to make sure we’re included in that group,” stressed Lowry.
LOOSE PUCKS: The Royals are without defencemen Joe Hicketts and Ryan Gagnon while they represent Team Pacific at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Quebec. Cougars’ winger Carson Bolduc is also on the team and the head coach is P.G. assistant Jason Becker ... Austin Carroll will be back in Victoria’s lineup after the loss of his father. Carroll had four goals and two assists in five games before missing the last two games of the Royals’ road trip just before Christmas ... With Hicketts and Gagnon out, that means Jack Walker should lineup on the blue-line tonight and not at forward.
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