The number four, as in position in the standings, looks fine on the surging Victoria Royals.
As does the number five, as in consecutive number of games won.
The Royals (32-19-4) won that fifth consecutive Western Hockey League fixture Sunday evening with a 5-3 victory over the Chiefs before 5,045 fans at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena in Washington state.
The result left Victoria alone in fourth place in the Western Conference, two points ahead of Spokane with a game in hand and three points ahead of the idle Tri City Americans.
“We played a solid, smart road game,” said Royals head coach Dave Lowry, whose club took a 2-0 lead seven minutes into the contest on goals by Crooks and Jack Walker.
“We knew Spokane was playing for the third time in three nights and so we pushed the pace early on,” added Lowry, whose club had a rare Saturday off the night before.
Whatever the strategy, it worked.
Yet regardless of plan, hockey games come down to certain moments.
This game’s pivotal point occurred in the second period with Victoria leading 2-1 but Spokane pressing on the power play. Victoria’s artfully resourceful forward Jamie Crooks turned the tide by stealing the puck and churning down-ice in the other direction to score short-handed and unassisted at 5:15 to make it 3-1 with his second goal of the night and 28th of the season.
“Jamie’s was a huge short-handed goal for us and totally took away any momentum they [Chiefs] were looking to gain,” said Lowry.
Victoria forward Ben Walker made it 4-1 at 13:50 of the second.
After Spokane pulled to within two in the third period on Mitch Holmberg’s 33rd goal of the season, another of those crucial moments that decide games occurred in Victoria’s favour. Royals’ role forward Austin Carroll scored a thunderous goal on sheer individual initiative to make it 5-2 at 7:40 of the final period to dim any Chiefs hopes of a rally.
“It hasn’t been any one guy for us this season,” said Lowry.
“We’ve relied heavily on scoring by committee. Different guys have stepped up for us on different nights.”
In the nets, Patrik Polivka made 17 saves for Victoria for his 28th victory while losers Garret Hughson and Eric Williams combined to make 23 saves.
Victoria firmed its grip, if only incrementally, on fourth place in the Western Conference behind the CHL national top-10 ranked Portland Winter Hawks, Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers.
The race between the Royals, Chiefs and Americans for the fourth-through-sixth spots in the conference is hardly a middle-of-the-pack academic exercise. The fourth-place team earns home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. The fifth-place team will at least avoid Portland, Kelowna and Kamloops. The sixth-place team will have to play one of those three heavyweights, likely Kamloops, in the opening round.
Meanwhile, Royals captain Tyler Stahl returned to the ice Sunday night in Spokane after the blueliner sat out an eight-game suspension for a hitting-to-the head penalty on Jan. 25.
The Royals, however, were again missing injured forwards Trent Lofthouse, Logan Nelson, Luke Harrison and leading-scorer Alex Gogolev.
The Royals began a six-game road trip, encompassing 11 days, with a 5-3 victory Friday night in Tri City against the Americans.
The swing continues Wednesday in Cranbrook against the Kootenay Ice, Friday in Red Deer against the Rebels, Saturday in Calgary against the Hitmen and next Sunday in Edmonton against the defending WHL-champion Oil Kings.
The next Royals home date is Feb. 22 against the Kelowna Rockets and begins a five-game home-stand on Blanshard.
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