Royals look to score playoff edge

Victoria in Prince George for two key games against Cougars

With the Victoria Royals' fancy new sleeper bus churning into Prince George this weekend, so is December rolling into view - and with that, the 2012-13 structural nature of the Western Conference of the Western Hockey League.

The Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks, the latter despite being broadsided by league sanctions this week, seem in a class by themselves with 42 and 41 points, respectively.

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The Spokane Chiefs (35 points), Kelowna Rockets (34) and Tri City Americans (34) appear to have settled into the second tier. The Vancouver Giants, on 14 points, are pretty much an afterthought.

That leaves the Royals (27 points), Seattle Thunderbirds (25), Cougars (22) and Everett Silvertips (22) positioning for the final three conference playoff berths, with one of those clubs to be the unlucky one that will join the Giants on the post-season sidelines.

"I think it could shake up yet," countered Prince George GM Dallas Thompson, ahead of his club's two-game home set tonight and Saturday against the Royals.

"There could be some teams [in the first or second tiers of the conference] coming back to the pack. It's a dog fight every night. Any night, anyone can beat anyone."

Everett looks to be in the worst shape with three-to-four more games played than Victoria, Seattle and Prince George. The Silvertips - not to mention Canada for the upcoming world junior championships in Russia - have also lost defenceman and 2012 NHL draft second overall selection Ryan Murray for the season with a shoulder tear that required surgery. He was injured in a collision with Royals forward Logan Nelson in a 5-0 Victoria victory over Everett on Nov. 16 at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

There's the added incentive of trying to avoid the seventh and eighth playoff slots, which would mean opening-round meetings with Kamloops or Portland and likely quick exits from the post-season dance.

So it may seem early, but come March these are the points that teams will be glad they tucked away or will rue squandering.

"These are big points, especially when you get down near the end of the season in a playoff race," noted Royals forward Ben Walker last weekend when Victoria and Prince George split a pair of games at the Memorial Centre.

Except for a late Brett Cote goal in regulation that won the second game 3-2 for Victoria, the Cougars were mere minutes from escaping the capital with three or possibly the maximum four points in those two games. This Prince George team can't be discounted as the Royals (13-12-1) and Cougars (9-12-4) renew acquaintances in another two-game set, this time in the north country.

"The Cougars are a young team and they work," said Royals head coach Dave Lowry by phone Thursday, as the team bus made its way up Highway 97.

"We have to match their work rate to give ourselves an opportunity this weekend."

After going 1-6 on the previous road trip, the Royals were perhaps a disappointing 3-2-1 in their recent six-game home stand.

"We have to get back to playing the way we're capable of playing," Lowry said.

He's right about the Cougars being young. They have 11 players who are 17-years-old and one 16-year-old. But GM Thompson and head coach Dean Clark have them buying into an ethic of diligence.

"That's kind of our identity - making it as hard on the other team as possible," Thompson said.

A youthful defensive corps is rounding into shape with Thompson and Clark citing the development of Raymond Grewal, Marc McNulty and Joe Carvalho.

"We work very, very hard - that's our motto - and have played a lot of close games against good teams but were not rewarded," Clark said.

"We have to continue limiting other teams' opportunities. Victoria is a dangerous team with the likes of Nelson, [Brandon] Magee, [Alex] Gogolev, [Jamie] Crooks, [Steven] Hodges and can strike on any shift."

Stopping those Victoria forwards will the Cougars' mantra this weekend.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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