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Victoria Royals' fans silence says a lot about WHL playoffs

Victoria Royals fans are among the most gracious in the Western Hockey League, and usually generous in their applause, when opposing players are named stars following the games because the fans here appreciate the performances, regardless of team.
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Victoria Royals Tyler Soy clears the puck past Spokane Chiefs Jason Fran in Game 5 at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre on Friday.

Victoria Royals fans are among the most gracious in the Western Hockey League, and usually generous in their applause, when opposing players are named stars following the games because the fans here appreciate the performances, regardless of team.

But that’s the regular season.

You know you are in the playoffs when dead silence, mixed with a smattering of boos, greeted goaltender Lasse Petersen and forward Kailer Yamamoto of the Spokane Chiefs when they were named as the first and second stars Friday at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre following Spokane’s 4-1 victory that cut Victoria’s lead to 3-2 in the best-of-seven opening round series.

Welcome to the post-season, boys. There are few niceties in what is described as the “second season.”

So it’s back to The Palouse, as the rolling plains near Spokane are known, for the sixth game today at 5 p.m. There’s a whole other part to Washington state than the Puget Sound area with which most Islanders are familiar. But eastern Washington is not an area the Royals particularly relish visiting again this season. Petersen and the Yamamoto brothers, Kailer and Keanu, had other ideas Friday in handing Victoria its first regulation-time home loss since Dec. 13.

A deciding seventh game, if required, will take place Tuesday night back on Blanshard Street.

Victoria’s dominance on Friday was almost ludicrous, considering the result. The shots advantage for the Royals was nearly two-to-one at 44-23. And consider that Spokane defenders blocked 16 other shots before they got to goaltender Peterson, so that’s 60 chances for the losers.

To say the Chiefs made the most of their limited opportunities in Game 5 may be the understatement of the WHL playoffs. It proved again that in the playoffs, rank opportunism often matters as much as dominance.

Another factor is that the Chiefs are hammering the Royals’ smaller forwards around the net — laying the wood on them, as they used to say in lacrosse. The Chiefs know they need some way of counteracting a superior Victoria team that won the WHL regular-season championship with 17 more wins and 31 more points than Western Conference eighth-seed Spokane.

“Spokane is a physical team,” Victoria assistant captain Logan Fisher said. “We have to push back when we can.”

Which is what Fisher, the veteran forward and third star Friday, is doing. He had one shift alone in which he laid four commanding hits on the Chiefs.

In past years, that role of Royals tide-shifter was held by Brandon Magee and his non-stop motor. But Magee is now in the pros with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. So it seems to have fallen to Fisher and Jack Walker to provide those respective key hits or goals that are momentum-changing moments during a game. Walker appeared to do that with his goal late in the first period Friday that made it 2-1. But Spokane hung tough.

“They [Chiefs] are putting everything on the line,” Fisher said. “It is what we expected. This is playoff hockey.”

Victoria went 0-4 on the power play Friday and also gave up a deflating short-handed goal.

“It’s a long trip back down there for Game 6 and it gives us plenty of time to think about the good stuff and also [how to do better on] the special teams,” the veteran forward Walker said. About the stress that travel places on the body, Walker added: “It’s about taking care of ourselves.”

Injuries have been a factor in the series. Spokane was decimated late in the regular season, but returned to a modicum of health in time for the playoffs. Still missing, however, is regular goaltender Tyson Verhelst. But back-up Petersen has stepped in splendidly to become one of the storylines of the series.

The Royals, already without captain and Canada world junior team blueliner Joe Hicketts for all but the first game of the series, saw highly useful scoring forward Vladimir Bobylev skate off limping in the third period Friday.

“[Bobylev] has been ruled out for [tonight’s sixth] game. We’ll see after that,” Victoria GM Cam Hope said.

It is doubtful Hicketts will return tonight, either.

“Joe remains day-to-day,” Hope said.

The Royals were remarkably injury-free during the regular season. But they have not proved immune in the playoffs. Yet the physical setbacks in this series are not affecting them mentally. “Our heads are in the right spot,” Fisher said.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com