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Victoria Royals beat Prince George Cougars for statement win

The Royals scored two unanswered goals in the third period to defeat the host and Western Hockey League top-ranked Prince George Cougars 5-3 at CN Centre.
Victoria Royals goaltender Braden Holt makes a save against the Prince George Cougars during a WHL game at Save on Foods Memorial Centre Victoria on Sept. 30, 2023. The two teams met Friday night in Prince George. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The Victoria Royals recorded a statement win Friday night against a team looking for a statement season.

The Royals scored two unanswered goals in the third period to defeat the host and Western Hockey League top-ranked Prince George Cougars 5-3 at CN Centre.

There is no underestimating the Royals’ accomplishment on the night. That’s because these are heady times for the Cougars, with pundits predicting a possible WHL championship, which would be only the second in franchise history after 1980-81, when the team was located in Victoria.

While it would be near impossible match the latter Cougar team’s record at the old Memorial Arena on Blanshard with the likes of Barry Pederson and Grant Fuhr — its 60 wins are still the WHL and Canadian Hockey League all-time records — this Cougars squad located 876 kilometres north of the capital is pretty darn good and ranked No. 2 in the CHL top-10 poll behind the Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The Royals began the second period with three goals in the first minute and 13 seconds by Tanner Scott, Dawson Pasternak and Ben Riche. It was the flash-quick Scott’s fourth goal and eighth point in his past four games to lead the team in scoring with 34 points.

But a pair of goals by Zac Funk, his league-leading 31st and 32nd of the season, and one by Minnesota Wild second-round draft pick Riley Heidt brought the Cougars level going into the second break.

Import forward Casper Evensen-Haugen, who will represent his native Norway in the 2024 Tier-2 world junior championship, put Victoria back into the lead at 1:29 of the third period. Defenceman Ryan Spizawka provided the insurance goal.

Braden Holt made 35 saves in goal for Victoria while Joshua Ravensbergen and Ty Young combined for only 16 saves for Prince George.

The Royals and Cougars went into the game after each having won three consecutive road games. Victoria pushed that to four consecutive road wins. For the first time since 2019-20, the Royals (18-11-2) are in play in the top half of the Western Conference standings and are four points behind the leading Cougars (21-8), making this a potential swing weekend for both clubs, as they meet again Saturday night in Prince George, with the Cougars holding two games in hand.

The Royals have already surpassed last season’s total of 17 victories. This is clearly a changed Royals club, from not only last season, but from the one that opened the home portion of this season with 11-2 and 5-3 losses to the Cougars at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre to fall to 0-4 overall.

The Cougars were undefeated against the Royals at 8-0-1 last season and are 24-9-6 against Victoria over the past five years. But Friday’s result might have been the first indication of a reversal of fortune.

The Cougars were without third-round Los Angeles Kings draft pick Koehn Ziemmer, out long term with an ankle injury, and import forward Viliam Kmec.