GAME DAY: VICTORIA VS. KOOTENAY
6 p.m. at Western Financial Place, Cranbrook
Radio: The Zone 91.3 FM / TV: None
It’s hard to captain a ship while standing on the dock.
Same thing with a hockey team.
Which is why Tyler Stahl is glad to be back in the Victoria Royals’ lineup. The Royals captain will suit up for his second Western Hockey League game — tonight in Cranbrook against the Kootenay Ice — since sitting out an eight-game suspension for a hit-to-the-head penalty Jan. 25.
“My legs feel good and I’m skating with confidence,” said Stahl, who returned in Sunday’s 5-3 victory at Spokane.
“It was tough watching from the sidelines [for eight games]. Obviously, nobody likes to do that. But I’m kind of used to it.”
The latter comment reflected the fact that his latest suspension was his third of the season. The thing about Stahl is that while he can lay into a check, he isn’t mean-spirited or dirty about it. It’s more a matter of learning how to better time his six-foot-two, 215-pound frame when he lines up a hit.
“I’m working on how to correct certain things and being more careful,” said the 20-year-old blueliner from Drumheller, Alta., who was drafted in the sixth round by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2010 but never signed.
“It may be about passing up or holding back [on laying into a hit] in certain instances.”
Royals head coach Dave Lowry knows body-checking is an art.
“Tyler is the hardest hitter in the league, but it’s about control,” said the Victoria bench boss.
The Royals need Stahl’s plus-7 rating, but most importantly, his veteran leadership. And they need it on the ice, not from the press box.
“When you take a 20-year-old out of the mix, you become a very young team,” noted Lowry.
“Plus Tyler is a physical, tough player who is very hard to play against and his leadership and veteran presence are huge for us. But we know he is a player who is going to be closely watched [by the league]. That’s where discipline and thinking the game through come into play.”
Yet, the Royals have been playing well, regardless of the Stahl suspension and the numerous injuries up front to key forwards, the latest being leading-scorer Alex Gogolev, with Buffalo Sabres draft-pick Logan Nelson out longer term.
“We score and do things by committee. We’ve had guys in and out of the lineup all season but the way we’ve responded has been tremendous,” said Stahl.
Victoria (32-19-4) takes a five-game winning streak and fourth-place Western Conference standing into Cranbrook tonight against the Ice (26-28-2), who are ninth in the Eastern Conference and three points adrift of a playoff position.
The Ice, however, are rising rapidly and have won 16 of their last 21 games and are 16-5-1 since the Christmas break. Of more concern tonight for the Royals is the fact the Ice have won their last 10 home games — which is two off the all-time Kootenay club record of 12 established in 2006-07.
“They [Ice] are very good at home and are in a dog fight for a playoff spot, so we fully expect to be in a tough game and we have to be ready,” said Lowry.
Tonight’s game denotes the halfway point of the Royals’ six-game road trip, which concludes Friday in Red Deer against the Rebels, Saturday in Calgary against the Hitmen and Sunday in Edmonton against the defending WHL-champion Oil Kings.
“We’re stuck with each other,” quipped Stahl, about hockey life on the road.
“It’s good for bonding,” added the Victoria captain, who will age out of junior, and next season has the option of playing CIS hockey or breaking into the minor pros at the AHL or ECHL levels.
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