Royals look for fast start against Blazers in opening round of WHL playoffs

GAME DAY: VICTORIA VS. KAMLOOPS
7 p.m. at the Interior Savings Centre
Radio: The Zone 91.3 FM / TV: None

In many ways, this is the matchup that simply had to be. Not that hockey players really need external motivation for the playoffs, but no team draws quite the same passion out of the Victoria Royals as the Kamloops Blazers

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The Western Conference sixth-seed Royals (35-30-7) and third-seed Blazers (47-20-5) meet in the best-of-seven opening-round of the Western Hockey League playoffs for the second consecutive season.

“Certain [Royals-Blazers] players don’t like each other,” admitted Victoria forward Tim Traber, who incurred a six-game suspension the last time the clubs met late in the regular season. But in the playoffs, you have to let go of regular-season animosities.

“Playoffs are a whole different thing,” said Traber, as the teams prepared for the opening two games tonight and Saturday in Kamloops before the series swings to the capital Tuesday and next Thursday.

“We have to play a smarter game because their power play is deadly.”

In fact, the nationally eighth-ranked Blazers have a clear edge in just about any category. Victoria’s 4-4 season record against Kamloops is encouraging but deceptive in that two of those wins were in shoot-outs, which means Kamloops’ record against Victoria is really 4-2-2.

“We need a solid team game, from first puck drop,” said Traber, acknowledging the Royals need to avoid a repeat of last year’s 4-0 Blazers’ sweep.

Victoria’s underdog status has head coach Dave Lowry drawing parallels to his NHL career in which he twice went on unexpected runs to the Stanley Cup final with unheralded teams. “I was on two teams no one expected to go that far [1996 Florida Panthers and 2004 Calgary Flames],” Lowry noted. “When you get on a roll in the playoffs, anything can happen. Goaltending and discipline win playoff series.”

Here is a look at how the teams match up:

GOALTENDING: For two seasons, Cole Cheveldave has brought stability and steadiness to the Kamloops crease. Despite a heavy workload with 56 appearances, he sports a stingy 2.38 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. The Royals, meanwhile, are less certain in the crease. Czech import Patrik Polivka has carried the load with a 3.24 goals-against average, .894 save percentage and 28-16-5 record in 53 appearances but has been compromised by a lower-body injury and missed the end of the season. That gave rookie Coleman Vollrath (3.54 goals-against average, .888 save percentage and 4-12-2 record in 27 appearances) the keys to the crease in six of the last seven games.

Lowry said tonight’s starter will be known to the public “at 7 p.m.”

Advantage: Blazers.

DEFENCE: The Royals’ blueline is promising for the future but very young and green. It doesn’t help that 20-year-old captain Tyler Stahl is injured and day-to-day. That puts veterans Jordan Fransoo and Brett Cote under pressure to display leadership. The more-experienced Blazers are the fourth-best defensive team in the WHL, in terms of goals allowed, while the Royals are 15th.

Advantage: Blazers.

OFFENCE: Kamloops forwards Colin Smith, Tim Bozon, JC Lipon and Brendan Ranford are like a blue-and-orange tsunami rolling over you with a combined 135 goals and 373 points. The mid-season acquisition of 20-year-old Kale Kessy from the Vancouver Giants, a 2011 draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, gives the Blazers even more veteran offensive clout. The Royals, meanwhile, have lost leading-scorer and team MVP Alex Gogolev to injury.

Advantage: Blazers.

COACHING: Lowry and Guy Charron are a couple of cagey former NHLers who know their way around a bench or behind it. Kamloops head coach Charron — who never played in a playoff game in his 11-season NHL career — has turned what was a languishing program into a major-junior power, recording his second consecutive 99-point season. Lowry set a franchise record for wins in his first season as head coach of the Royals.

Advantage: Draw

SCHEDULE


GAME 1
Today, 7 p.m. at Kamloops


GAME 2
Saturday, 7 p.m. at Kamloops


GAME 3
Tuesday, 7 p.m. at Victoria


GAME 4
Thursday, 7 p.m. at Victoria


GAME 5 (if necessary)
March 30, 7 p.m. at Kamloops


GAME 6 (if necessary)
April 1, 7 p.m. at Victoria


GAME 7 (if necessary)
April 3, 7 p.m. at Kamloops
— Victoria games to be played at Bear Mountain Arena

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