Dillon Dubé, Kole Lind and Cal Foote of the Kelowna Rockets are considered future NHLers. But they were shut down tighter than a bank on the long weekend by the Tri-City Americans in a first-round playoff sweep.
Look no further than that to understand why the injury-depleted Victoria Royals are going to need more diversification of offensive output, in the second round of the Western Hockey League playoffs against the Americans, than they got in the seven-game opening round against the Vancouver Giants.
Royals captain Matthew Phillips has either scored or assisted on 10 of Victoria’s last 11 goals. The Royals’ current first line of Phillips, Dante Hannoun and Noah Gregor has a combined 38 points in the playoffs.
The rest of the roster has a combined 30 points. (And six of those came from injured forwards Tyler Soy and Tanner Kaspick in the combined two games and a bit they played against the Giants.)
“Phillips is a special player. But like we did with Dubé in the first round, we [aim] to get in his face and give him no space,” Americans defenceman Dylan Coghlan said.
“It was a team effort to play hard against Kelowna’s top guys … we gave them no space,” added the Nanaimo product, who is under NHL contract to the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
“We’ve got to keep an eye on Victoria’s top three guys. If you don’t watch them, they are dangerous.”
Twelve of Victoria’s player points against the Giants came from defencemen Jared Freadrich, Kade Jensen and Ralph Jarratt, so blueline production is not an issue.
Royals forward Lane Zablocki scored in Tuesday’s 4-3 Game 7 victory over the Giants and agreed more of that is needed from the lower three forward lines. “Absolutely, we need to get secondary scoring. That will be huge for us because it takes the pressure off our top guys,” said the third-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings.
Royals head coach Dan Price, however, disputed the notion his offence is one dimensional without injured all-time franchise scoring-leader Soy and St. Louis Blues-signed Kaspick, his top two centres when not on the shelf.
“You have to look at everything you measure offence by — including scoring chances and puck time in the offensive zone. All our lines have had scoring chances and have had a lot of puck time,” Price said.
The second Island product on the Americans is forward Jordan Topping from Salt Spring Island, who came out of the Cowichan Valley youth hockey system and had 38 goals in the regular season for Tri-City. He said the key in the first round was stealing both the first two games in Kelowna.
“Getting a good start on the road is crucial for us again,” Topping said.
“We’re deep with a lot of guys who can play.”
The Americans are indeed that. Their roster boasts Coghlan, Topping and NHL first-round draft picks Michael Rasmussen, ninth overall to the Red Wings, defenceman Juuso Valimaki, 16th overall to the Calgary Flames, and Canadian world junior gold-medallist blueliner Jake Bean, 13th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes.
There is also third-round Hurricanes selection Morgan Geekie, who was on fire with nine goals and 13 points in the four playoff games against the Rockets, and fourth-round Anaheim Ducks pick Kyle Olson.
“Tri-City is physical and large and their power play is a big strength,” said Royals captain Phillips.
The Americans were seven-for-13 against Kelowna on the odd-man for a blistering 53.8 per cent. You cannot afford to take penalties against a team with such high-end talent that it is scoring on more than half its power-play chances.
Lost, however, amid the hubbub and emotional excitement of the Victoria’s Game 7 victory over the Giants, was the fact that the Royals recorded a rarity in hockey by not having a penalty called against them. That was while still playing an aggressive, grinding game.
The “D” word was heard often during the Royals’ practice on Thursday.
“We want to be the most disciplined team,” said Royals forward Gregor, a fourth-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks.
Bench-boss Price also picked up on the discipline angle: “Our players are proud of how they played a penalty-free game while also playing tough. That’s important because special teams are going to be a big factor in the series against Tri-City.”
Victoria has had just a two-day turnaround to face the well-rested Americans, who have not played since sweeping Kelowna on March 29.
“Our mood is up and we want to keep the momentum going,” said Gregor, adding the Royals can’t wait to hit the ice again.
Phillips noted: “Tri-City had to travel while we stayed home.”
Meanwhile, Kaspick skated in a yellow no-hit jersey during practice Thursday. Forwards Soy and Dino Kambeitz and defenceman Scott Walford, a third-round Montreal Canadiens draft pick, did not skate.
The third and fourth games are Tuesday and Wednesday in Kennewick, Washington.
The Americans were picked by many in the pre-season to win the Western Conference. Tri-City, however, suffered through long stretches of injuries to key players, and performed well below expectation in the regular season. But their 85 points was still better than Victoria’s 84.
The Royals get home-ice advantage in the series because they were seeded higher in the B.C. Division at No. 2; the wildcard Americans were at No. 4 in the much deeper U.S. Division.
Including playoffs, the Americans have won 10 of their last 11 games.
“We had a lot of injuries in the regular season, but it’s coming together for us at the right time,” said Topping. Like Coghlan, he’ll have plenty of support among friends and family in the Memorial Centre this weekend.