To say the outlook appears grim for the Victoria Royals would be the understatement of the Western Hockey League post-season.
Not only must they rally from a 3-0 series deficit, something that has only been done thrice in the 52-year history of the WHL, but they must do it with a severely depleted roster with players falling faster than Trump and Trudeau cabinet members.
And they must do it against a healthy Vancouver Giants team that is led by the seriously-talented defenceman Bowen Byram, who is increasingly looking like he could be the third player off the board in the 2019 NHL draft behind American and Finnish forwards Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko.
Yet, two of the games in the second-round series against the B.C. Division- and Western Conference regular-season champion Giants have gone to overtime and the other was a one-goal game into the third period. That the Royals, who have been outrageously outshot 124 to 45 in the series, even managed to take two of the games to one-shot affairs is a wonder made possible by the yeoman goaltending of Griffen Outhouse.
But hockey is not played with horseshoes or hand grenades. Close doesn’t count in the playoffs. They don’t give out single points like in the regular season for three-on-three overtime losses. Only full losses in full five-on-five. And there is a brutal finality to that, as the Royals are discovering. Yet, it is a fine line, said Victoria head coach Dan Price, who remains buoyant, despite the stark task ahead.
“It could be 3-0 for us or 2-1 either way,” he said.
“All we have to do is win one game [tonight at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre] and take it from there. We have been written off all year but have proven we are extremely resilient. We’re still here and we’re still playing.”
Well, at least some of the Royals are.
Victoria is playing through an unholy mix of injuries and suspensions. Missing from the mix Tuesday in the 5-4 overtime loss were regular-season leading-scorer Kaid Oliver, assistant-captain Kody McDonald, the energy provided by Tanner Sidaway, defenceman Jake Kustra and the veteran blue-line steadiness of 20-year-old Ralph Jarratt. Things looked to get even worse when Danish import-forward Phillip Schultz, Victoria’s leading playoff scorer, went off during overtime in obvious pain after hitting hard into an open door at the bench and it did not look good. The league does not issue injury reports in the playoffs and teams stay mum about player health, so as not to tip off the opposition.
There hasn’t been a team more snake-bitten by injuries over the years in the WHL playoffs than the Royals, who last year had 20-year-olds Tyler Soy and Tanner Kaspick end their junior careers looking on from the sidelines. This year, 20-year-olds Jarratt and McDonald might share that same fate, although the latter through suspension.
Standout Victoria defenceman Scott Walford noted that after missing all of last year’s playoffs and most of the post-season the year before, this is his first real taste of the playoffs since 2016. That’s just the way it has gone for the Royals in their playoff history.
“We’ve had a next-man-up mentality,” said Walford.
Out of necessity, especially with suspensions to McDonald and Kustra complicating the situation even more this year.
“We’re just focusing on Game 4,” added Walford, an unsigned third-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens, but whose stock has risen in these playoffs.
“We’re not focusing on the shot clock, only on our scoring chances, which we have had. We have had our chances to win. We are focusing on winning one game at a time.”
Walford optimistically pointed to a playoff precedent in the NHL: “The Los Angeles Kings fell behind 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks and went on to win the Stanley Cup that year.”
Fellow Royals blue-liner Mitchell Prowse also struck a hopeful chord: “We have been in position to win every game. We are only focusing on Game 4. We are going to give it our all and hopefully get a win for our fans. This is a great group of guys and we want to keep this rolling. We don’t want to go out.”
Giants forward Owen Hardy found the right time to score his first two goals of the playoffs Tuesday, including the overtime winner.
“Outhouse is a great goaltender but we don’t get frustrated and we stick to our game plan,” said Nanaimo-product Hardy.
“Nothing changes for us. We keep going at him. There’s a good feeling in our room. We are not comfortable, but we are confident.”
Leading 3-0, with a player like Byram and a conference regular-season championship under their belts, Islander Hardy and his Giants teammates can afford to be confident and then some at this point.