Everybody loves a Subway Series, or in this case, a Strait Series.
But the ferry crossing seems to be tilted in favour of the Lower Mainland. If you put the season standings and rosters of the Vancouver Giants and Victoria Royals side by side, there is a clear imbalance. The Giants boast a likely 2019 NHL lottery pick in the deft Bowen Byram, the top-rated blue-liner for the big-league draft, and placed 29 points ahead of B.C. Division second-place Victoria in taking the division and Western Conference regular-season championships in the Western Hockey League.
“We don’t care about being the underdogs,” said Royals goaltender Griffen Outhouse.
“We’re just going to go out and play as hard as we can.”
That’s a formula that has worked so far for the Royals, a team with little star power, which at the beginning of the season was given only a small chance to be playing this far into the spring.
“We’re humble but have a quiet confidence in ourselves,” said Victoria defenceman Scott Walford, who was a standout, as the Royals dispatched the B.C. Division third-seed Kamloops Blazers 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs.
Victoria now meets the favoured Giants in the best-of-seven second-round series beginning tonight and Saturday at the Langley Events Centre. The third and fourth games are Tuesday and Thursday at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.
The Giants defeated the feisty wildcard Seattle Thunderbirds 4-2 in the first round to advance to a reprise matchup against the Royals, who defeated the Giants in seven games in the first round last year. But things are different this time around. Last year was Vancouver’s first playoff appearance in four seasons after a lowly stretch. Now fully into their rebuild, the Giants are conference champions and into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
There are nine current Royals and 13 Giants who were on the rosters during last year’s playoff series between the clubs and there was some lingering animosity expressed this week in the Vancouver media by some of the Giants. It’s water under the Johnson Street Bridge, replied the Royals, not wanting to get into a war of words.
“Last year’s series means nothing. This is a whole new clean sheet,” said Outhouse.
The Royals, who have made the playoffs in each of their eight seasons on the Island, are into the second round for the fifth time but have advanced no further. Either Victoria or Vancouver is going to break a drought by advancing to the Western Conference final — against either Everett or Spokane — once the second-round spray settles.
Victoria matched up well against the Giants and was 4-4-2 in the season series (6-2-2, however, in Vancouver’s favour from the Giants’ perspective).
“We are going to have to claw and scratch and fight for every inch of ice,” said Royals head coach Dan Price.
Which is what the Royals have done all season to keep their heads above water against more talented opposition.
Asked about defending the elusive Byram, Price replied: “Vancouver is a good puck-moving team with a deep defensive corps. But our focus is on us. If we play our team game within our structure, we don’t worry about anybody on any other team.”
Outhouse and Walford, the co-MVPs so far of the playoffs for Victoria, concurred.
“[Byram] is a skilled player but we don’t worry too much about any one player. We focus on ourselves and what we need to do,” said Outhouse.
Byram showed his class by being named WHL player of the week for the week ending March 31 for his two goals, six points and plus-seven rating in four playoff games against the Thunderbirds.
“[Byram] is a phenomenal player — there is a reason he is the top-ranked defenceman for the NHL draft — but we focus on the opposition as a whole and not just one player,” said Walford.
Victoria must continue through the post-season without its top two forwards. Team-leading scorer Kaid Oliver missed the Kamloops series with an upper-body injury and is expected to miss the entirety of the Vancouver series as well. Assistant-captain Kody McDonald is in the midst of a six-game suspension for swinging his stick at Blazers forward Zane Franklin on the Kamloops bench after a remark made by Franklin in Game 4 of the opening round. Taking into account the two games served in the Kamloops series, McDonald will miss the first four games of the Vancouver series, and will be eligible to return on April 13, if a Game 5 is needed.
“We will take the same mindset forward against Vancouver that allowed us to win the last two games against Kamloops without Kody,” said Price.
“We have attacked offensively, and defended, by committee. We can handle Kody’s minutes. We have a lot of forwards who can play a 200-foot game and are comfortable at centre or on wing.”
Meanwhile, Vancouver 20-year-old Davis Koch enters the series as one of the hottest players in the league after being named the WHL player of the month for March. Koch led the WHL in scoring in March with 24 points, including five goals, in a mix of eight regular-season and six playoff games.