The Victoria Royals say it’s their next-man up approach that will carry them through the Western Hockey League playoffs. It has to, if the team is to be successful.
It’s a familiar script in the Royals’ star-crossed and injury-riddled playoff history, in which more times than the franchise cares to remember, it has been on the losing end in the war of attrition.
But it is a self-inflicted, non-injury loss of a key player this time around that might change the trajectory of Victoria’s opening-round best-of-seven series against the Kamloops Blazers, which is tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 tonight at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre ahead of Game 6 on Monday in Kamloops.
If required, Game 7 would be at the Memorial Centre on Wednesday night.
Royals assistant-captain Kody McDonald has been suspended indefinitely by the league for leaning over from the Victoria bench to swing his stick into the Blazers bench in the 6-3 loss in Kamloops on Wednesday. With team leading-scorer Kaid Oliver out for likely the entire series with an upper-body injury, the Royals are without their top-two forwards.
“Kody is a good player and a leader in the room, but we have the mentality of the next man up,” said Royals import-forward Phillip Schultz, who has played in two world junior championships for Denmark.
“Now it’s time to step up. This will make us a stronger and closer group.”
Victoria head coach Dan Price concurred: “[The McDonald suspension] has galvanized our group and created a bond. When one player goes down, the next player steps up. That’s the way this team has been built by [general-manager] Cam Hope.”
The players seem unfazed by how rugged and rough the series has been to date.
“It’s just playoff hockey between two teams who want to win,” said Schultz, whose style is more conducive to the North American game than the less-physical European approach.
Price concurred: “You have two playoff teams in a physical division in a physical conference in a physical league.”
Yet, with the McDonald issue, the Royals have been given a vivid lesson in not responding to Kamloops’ goading.
“We have to keep control of our emotions,” said Price.
“The other big thing is consistency and staying steady and sticking together and sticking with the game plan.”
The latter have been the hallmarks of a Royals team that surprised most pundits around the WHL by placing second in the B.C. Division during the regular season.
“We’ve always had a next-up approach,” said Royals blueliner Scott Walford, a third-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens, who has been outstanding in the series.
“Placing second in our division was a big accomplishment considering all the injuries we had this season.
“If at the beginning of the season, you would have told us we would be in basically a best-of-three playoff situation with home-ice advantage, we would have taken it in a heartbeat.”
A story line in the series is how the B.C. Division third-seed Blazers seem to be getting under the skin of the Royals.
“We only have to worry about ourselves and how we play,” said Walford.
“It’s a roller-coaster. You have two good teams playing for their seasons. We just have to focus on playing hockey the way we play it.”
The goaltending in the series, in both creases, has been very strong. Although he is a 20-year-old veteran, these have been the first career playoff games played by Blazers goaltender Dylan Ferguson of Lantzville.
“It feels like a whole new season and the energy around this series has been awesome. And playing on the Island has made it all that more exciting for me,” said Ferguson.
“The intensity is definitely high and we have to pick up where we left off in Game 4 when all four of our forward lines were clicking,” added the NHL-signed Island product, who is a Las Vegas Golden Knights prospect.
There are no secrets when teams get to the latter stages of a playoff series.
“We know what Kamloops’ game plan is and they know what ours is,” said Schultz.
“The team which executes its game plan the best will win.”