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Different scenario this season as Royals set to face Thunderbirds

Royals and Thunderbirds prepare for two-game set
Victoria Royals head coach James Patrick. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

No two seasons in major-junior hockey are alike, sometimes not even remotely so.

Last year at this time, James Patrick’s Winnipeg Ice and Matt O’Dette’s Seattle Thunderbirds were destined for their eventual clash in the Western Hockey League final. It was won by Seattle, which represented the WHL in the 2023 Memorial Cup national championship tournament, losing to the Quebec Remparts in the final.

That was all academic to the Victoria Royals, who last year missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

But now Patrick is behind the Victoria bench and the Royals (25-16-7) are solidly in post-season position for the first time since 2020, the suddenly-rebuilding Thunderbirds (16-25-2) are 10th in the Western Conference and currently out of playoff position, and the Ice are no longer the Ice but the Wenatchee Wild.

Blink and the world changes. It certainly has in 2023-24 for the Royals and Thunderbirds as they prepare for their two-game set tonight at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre and Sunday at the Accesso ShoWare Center in Kent, Washington.

Patrick’s first two games at the Royals helm, after replacing Dan Price as head coach in November, were against the Thunderbirds.

Patrick has also played the Thunderbirds a third time since and is 2-1 in those games, so is well beyond the personal facing-Seattle-again narrative. That is yesterday’s news. What isn’t is the Royals’ current dire injury situation with defencemen Nate Misskey month-to-month, Hudson Bjornson week-to-week, Austin Zemlak day-to-day and forwards Robin Sapousek month-to-month and Ben Riche to be determined.

The injuries are not insignificant in that Misskey is ranked for the 2024 NHL draft, Zemlak is also a cornerstone of the defence, Riche has been a happy surprise as a trade aquisition and the Czech Sapousek is a two-time world junior championship medallist. “We’re a bit of a hurting team,” Patrick said after the Royals 3-2 overtime win over the Vancouver Giants on Sunday.

“I know we’re real fragile. We need somebody to step up.”

Some have, listing Dawson Pasternak, Justin Kipkie, Tyson Laventure, Cole Reschny, Alex Edwards and Braden Holt as the Royals fought gamely through a 1-1-1 set against the Giants, and led in all three games, prompting Patrick to note: “We have to learn how to play with leads.”

The Royals and Thunderbirds have met three times this season, all in one-goal games in Kent, with Victoria holding a 2-1 games advantage on 3-2 and 5-4 victories with Seattle taking the other game 5-4. That indicates Seattle is in a competitive rebuild with each game tight.

The Thunderbirds come to the Island with two consecutive losses that followed two wins in their last four games under bench-boss O’Dette, who Victoria fans will remember as a rugged rearguard for the Fresno Falcons and Stockton Thunder during the Salmon Kings pro ECHL era.