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Desperate Royals look for home-ice boost as series swings to Island

Victoria hosts Portland on Tuesday and Wednesday
Reggie Newman and the Royals are back home for Game 3 on Tuesday night. (DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST)

The cross-border playoff hockey rivalry between the cities of Victoria and Portland has been as eventful as it has been lengthy, from the Maple Leafs beating the Buckaroos in the 1966 pro WHL final to the brawl at the end of the 2014 second-round WHL series between the Royals and Winterhawks. Interspersed were some memorable WHL post-season meetings between the Cougars and Winterhawks in the 1970s and 1980s.

The latest incarnation of the inter-city rivalry continues tonight with the seventh-seed Royals trailing the second-seed Winterhawks 2-0 in their best-of-seven Western Conference opening-round playoff series and looking for a home-ice jolt to get back into the series with the third and fourth games tonight and Wednesday at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

The fifth game, if required, would be Friday night at the Memorial Centre in the 2-3-2 format. That’s a potential near week on the Island in the first post-season series on Blanshard Street since 2019, due to two playoff years lost to the pandemic and Victoria failing to qualify the last two years.

“We talked about shutting out the opposing fans in their ­[Portland] rink,” said Victoria head coach James Patrick.

Now it’s time for the ­Royals players to open up their ear ­passages.

“I know the boost playing at home gives to our guys. It’s a loud, semi-raucous crowd and I think it affects adrenaline. It is going to be awesome for us,” said Patrick.

“It’s something a lot of our guys haven’t experienced. It can only help.”

Only four Royals players have WHL playoff experience and all with other teams.

Forward Reggie Newman is among those longer-term Victoria players in their first post-season.

“It was a lot of fun getting my first playoff games and getting my feet wet in the water,” said the third-year Royals winger.

Not as much fun for the Royals were the 4-3 and 5-1 scorelines in favour of the Winterhawks in Portland last weekend.

“We’ve got to be ready to go into [tonight] and put those first two games in Portland behind us. We had a few bad breakdowns. We’ve just got to be ready now for puck drop in the third game,” said Newman.

“Our fans have been awesome throughout the year and I’m sure they will be even better in the playoffs. Our fans will definitely bring some energy to these games and we are going to build off that. We are really excited for the games here. It’s really fast hockey and we just have to be ready to go for it [tonight].”

Bring it on, say the favoured and confident Winterhawks.

“Hopefully it’s going to be nice and loud,” said San Jose Sharks-drafted blue-liner Luca Cagnoni of the Winterhawks, counterintuitively.

“We’re used to it having to face Seattle and Spokane on the road in loud arenas. It gets you into a game and we’re looking forward to it. Obviously, it’s different on the road but we are going to try and convert that Victoria fan energy into our energy and play with our speed and transition.”

Cagnoni has three goals in the series to show why his 90 points this season were the most by a WHL defenceman in more than three decades since Shane Peacock of the Lethbridge Hurricanes recorded 102 in 1992-93. The story has taken on an added dimension considering the Burnaby-raised rearguard was overlooked and not selected in the WHL prospects draft.

“There were a lot of doubts about my size and stuff like that,” said Cagnoni, listed at five-foot-10 and 179 pounds.

“Not being drafted made me play with a chip on my shoulder and show every team that didn’t take me that they missed out on something.’

Cagnoni showed them by going from overlooked in the WHL draft to be selected in the fourth round of the 2023 NHL draft. He said the Sharks are looking for him to tighten up in the defensive zone and be quicker to pucks, something he has done in abundance in keeping the Royals forwards largely at bay so far in the series.

“We know Victoria has top guys with skill like [Dawson] Pasternak and [Cole] Reschny who are slippery and know how to score and give you a lot of challenges,” said Cagnoni.

“Those are guys to be aware of but I think we’ve handled them somewhat well so far. We’ve got to keep on shutting down those top guys.”

The reverse side of that coin for the Royals is that they need something of an offensive explosion from the likes of Pasternak and Reschny. They have teased it with Pasternak scoring Saturday in Portland in the 5-1 Royals loss and Reschny getting seven shots and hitting two posts in the game.