Here is something not many Western Hockey League pundits thought they would be saying in mid-February: The Victoria Royals have a shot at winning the B.C. Division.
This weekend will go a long way toward deciding at least playoff seedings in the division, if not the regular-season champion.
“The B.C. Division title is our goal and we are committed to go for it,” said Victoria captain Phillip Schultz.
The second-place Royals are winners of four straight and unbeaten in regulation time in five games and trail the leading Kamloops Blazers, winless in five games, by five points.
On their flank, the Royals (29-18-5) are trying to hold off the third-place Vancouver Giants, who trail Victoria by six points with a game in hand.
Victoria begins the key road weekend tonight at the Langley Events Centre against the Giants (26-20-5), who have won seven of their last eight games, and earned points in all of them. Then it’s up to Kamloops for games Saturday and Monday against the Blazers (32-16-4).
“We are within reach and really want to catch Kamloops,” said Schultz.
But first things first, which is Vancouver tonight at the LEC.
“The Giants are on a roll and they beat us the last two times we played them. So tonight is a revenge game,” said Schultz.
The Victoria captain has been doing his part in Victoria’s bid for the divisional crown, and literally all over the ice. The natural forward has played on the blueline of late in the absence of 20-year-old defenceman Will Warm. But when forward Tarun Fizer went down in the second period of the 3-1 victory at home Tuesday against the Red Deer Rebels, Schultz was moved up to the forward position in the third period and scored the game-tying and winning goals.
“I played both positions growing up and then had a decision to make at about age 14,” he said.
“I chose to be a forward because it’s more fun to score goals.”
With Fizer thought to be week-to-week, and Warm day-to-day, the injury situation leaves the Victoria roster in a fluid state.
“It will be game-time decisions as to where I will line up this weekend,” said Schultz.
“And within a game itself, you can move back and forth between defence and forward.”
Another injury impacting Victoria has been in the crease with WHL January goaltender of the month Shane Farkas listed as week-to-week. That has left Adam Evanoff carrying the entire load in the crease the past eight games, which he did brilliantly Tuesday in a 37-save performance that backstopped the victory against lowly Red Deer. The Royals simply can’t afford to give affiliated 16-year-old Delta Hockey Academy call-up Keegan Maddocks a start on such a crucial weekend. Hardly surprisingly, Evanoff was given Wednesday and half of practice Thursday off for body maintenance.
“The trainers have done a good job of helping keep my body fresh,” said Evanoff.
“It’s a matter of maintaining stamina and strength and staying in the moment. I’m used to it. I played every game in Moose Jaw, too, [before the trade last month to Victoria].”
The Royals have historically been hit hard by injuries in the stretch drive and the playoffs.
“Every team goes through it this time of year,” said Royals head coach Dan Price.
“That’s why you need to have depth and versatility and we feel we have that with the way our team has been built by [GM Cam Hope].”
The importance of the next three games, all against their closest divisional rivals, is not lost on Price.
“These will be the most intense games of the season,” he said.