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Royals fall further behind in playoff chase with loss to Cougars

The Royals aren’t desperate, yet, but the situation is getting there


The Victoria Royals’ stretch drive in the Western Hockey League has taken a stark wrong turn at just the wrong time with three consecutive losses. The Royals aren’t desperate, yet, but the situation is getting there. Victoria fell further back in what is turning into a diminishing bid for a playoff berth by losing 4-2 Saturday night to the host Prince George Cougars at CN Centre.

“You don’t want to leave it to the last minute,” said Royals GM and head coach Dan Price.

But that’s just what the math is dictating for Victoria. A post-season berth will be last moment or not at all. The ninth-place Royals have 18 games remaining and fell four points behind Kelowna in the battle for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference with the Rockets holding four games in hand. Kelowna beat the Prince Alberts Raiders 4-0 on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Cougars (21-21-4) are underachieving this season, considering they have the touted forward duo of Koehn Ziemmer and Riley Heidt, the 20th and 26th ranked North American skaters, respectively, for the 2023 NHL draft. In goal, the Cougars have Tyler Brennan, a fourth-round NHL draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, and Ty Young, a fifth-round draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks.

Heidt assisted on both of Ziemmer’s goals Saturday, the last into an empty net, as Prince George’s 4-2 and 8-1 weekend sweep of the Royals allowed the Cougars to climb to .500. Brennan needed only to make 18 saves for the victory. Nicholas Cristiano made 27 saves in goal for Victoria.

Danish import Marcus Almquist scored his second goal in as many nights in Prince George for Victoria while Reggie Newman notched the other Saturday as the reeling Royals fell to 14-31-5.

The Cougars lead the season series 4-0.

It doesn’t get any easier as the Royals play the B.C. Division-leading Blazers today in Kamloops following an overnight bus trip from Prince George. It was just last weekend the Royals were on a high after upsetting the Blazers 3-2 in Victoria despite Kamloops boasting a roster including eight NHL draft picks and three Canada gold-medallists from the 2023 world junior championships in Halifax. But that was three consecutive losses ago for Victoria and seems like another world now.

The Royals aren’t helped by an injury situation turned dire. The Royals’ San Jose Sharks-signed captain Gannon Laroque, 2022 Canada Under-18 forward Brayden Schuurman and former WHL draft top-10 pick Austin Zemlak did not make the trip. To conflate matters, team leading-scorer Jake Poole and fellow Royals forward Matthew Hodson, went out of the game Friday night in Prince George and missed Saturday’s game. They will not be in the line-up today in Kamloops, either, meaning the Royals are without five regulars. The team called up two affiliate players Saturday.

“We need to be mentally strong and manage the games,” said Price. “Prince George’s goals were on our mental errors caused by fatigue. We can’t let [today in Kamloops] turn into a track meet.”