Royals-Giants rivalry is ready for takeoff

It’s Royals-Giants: The Prequel.

Victoria and Vancouver will likely meet in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs. Their three-game weekend set — tonight at the Langley Events Centre and Saturday and Sunday at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre — will probably decide which team gets home-ice advantage in the post-season.

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The B.C. Division third-place Giants (30-21-5), who had an 11-game winning streak snapped in their last outing, are two points behind second-place Victoria with two games in hand. Both the Royals and Giants have clinched playoff berths.

Possibly complicating matters are the suddenly alive Kelowna Rockets, 3-1-1 in their last five games. But the Rockets trail Vancouver by six points and Victoria by eight with only 10 games remaining and are running out of time.

Most pundits are anticipating a third consecutive post-season meeting between the Royals and Giants after Victoria won in seven games in the first round in 2018 and Vancouver in four games in the second round last year.

Home ice will be important but it’s a relative thing to Royals forward Sean Gulka, who grew up in Langley, a stone’s throw away from the LEC. There will be a large Royals cheering section of Gulka family and friends tonight as Sean returns to the Victoria lineup after missing 16 games due to a concussion.

“I have a lot of family and they always show up at the LEC when we play the Giants,” said Gulka.

So the timing for his return couldn’t be better.

“It was frustrating to be out,” said Gulka.

“It sucks. But that’s hockey and that’s life. You just have to stay calm and focused on the long-term.”

Modern sports medicine knows you don’t mess with a concussion.

“You’ve got to play it safe with a head injury,” added Gulka.

“You can’t rush it. There are a lot of steps to take [in healing] and you have to take them.”

In many ways, Gulka is the prototype forward for the way the Royals play. The six-foot-three, grinding fore-checker has nine goals and 17 points in 37 games this season. He turned 20 this month and certainly has a veteran’s perspective after starting his junior career with two seasons on the hometown Langley Rivermen of the B.C. Hockey League and now two with the Royals.

“It was frustrating for Sean to be out and for us not to have him,” said Royals head coach Dan Price.

“I agree [with the premise] that he is prototypically, a 200-foot Royals-type player.”

The team captain agrees.

“Sean is a physical presence on our offence and we’re excited he’s back,” said Phillip Schultz.

Royals forward Gary Haden concurred: “Sean Gulka is a big element of our top six.”

And returning not a moment too soon.

Although playoff berths have been clinched, the three-game Royals-Giants set is far from meaningless.

“There is not an exhibition-like feel to this. Home ice for the playoffs is on the line, so no one is going to hold anything back,” said Victoria bench boss Price.

“It is going to be intense.”

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