The Victoria Royals and Kamloops Blazers are mirror images in goal this season in the Western Hockey League.
Both B.C. Division rivals feature 20-year-old veterans backed up by young rookies who the clubs see as their respective heirs apparent.
The last time the clubs met in the Interior, Blazers netminder Dylan Ferguson of Lantzville practically pilfered the game for Kamloops, with 33 saves in a 3-2 shootout victory over Victoria on Jan. 26. Ferguson, a Golden Knights prospect, is in his final season of junior after garnering headlines last season as an emergency call-up and appearing in his first NHL game for Las Vegas.
“We are going to have to do a better job of taking away Ferguson’s lines of sight so he is not able to track the puck like he did last time,” Royals head coach Dan Price said.
“And we are going to have to score on secondary chances.”
There have been as many occasions that veteran Griffen Outhouse has done the same and stolen games for Victoria over the past three seasons as starter.
In goal for Victoria during the last meeting between the clubs was 17-year-old rookie Brock Gould from Colorado. The Royals have made a recent effort to share the load so as not to wear down Outhouse before the playoffs, because as goes Outhouse in the post-season, so go the Royals’ chances.
Gould’s alter ego in the Kamloops net is Juan de Fuca minor hockey product Dylan Garand, a highly touted 16-year-old who backs up Ferguson. Garand starred with Canada Red at the World U-17 Hockey Challenge in November at Saint John, N.B.
Ferguson has made 40 appearances this season for Kamloops with a 3.08 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. Garand has played in 18 games, with a 3.23 GAA and .897 save percentage.
Outhouse has made 38 appearances this season for Victoria with a 2.76 GAA and .913 save percentage. The undrafted but dexterous native of Likely, B.C., has 108 WHL career victories. He is tied for seventh on the all-time league list with Martin Jones and trails career leaders Corey Hirsch and Tyson Sexsmith (120 victories each) by 12 wins, with 16 games remaining.
If anyone has been hurt by the WHL’s contraction this regular season from 72 games to now 68, it’s Outhouse. He has four fewer opportunities to tie or surpass the all-time league record for wins.
Gould has made 21 appearances for the Royals, often late in games, with a 3.39 GAA and .875 save percentage.
“I think both teams will be using both their goaltenders down the stretch,” Price said.
The Royals enjoy that luxury more than the Blazers. Victoria is almost assured of making the playoffs and is second in the B.C. Division at 27-22-3, six points clear of the third-place Kelowna Rockets, with two games in hand.
The Blazers are outside looking in at the playoff picture and are three points adrift of the Seattle Thunderbirds, who hold the final wild-card berth in the Western Conference.
“I think both us and the Blazers are coming in tonight with a lot of desperation,” Price said. “We want to accumulate as may points as we can [to assure second place in the B.C. Division and home-ice advantage in an increasingly likely first-round playoff series against Kelowna]. There is definitely a playoff feel to this game.”
The B.C. Division-leading Vancouver Giants (37-13-3) have clinched a post-season berth. The Royals’ aim is to be the next in the division to do so.
It didn’t hurt Victoria’s cause to go 3-2-1 in the six consecutive games against U.S. Division opponents the Royals played before swinging back into B.C. Division play tonight in Kamloops. On Friday and Saturday in Prince George, they’ll play the B.C. Division and Western Conference bottom-dwelling Cougars (16-32-6).
“I thought we played well and could have had two more victories in that stretch of games against the U.S. Division, which is a very tough division,” Price said.
The Royals have been propelled by hot sticks. Blueliner and third-round Montreal Canadiens draft pick Scott Walford had seven points on two goals and five assists in his past four games. Danish junior international Phillip Schultz had four goals and three assists for seven points in his last three games
Meanwhile, veteran defenceman Ralph Jarratt and rookie forward Ty Yoder appear ready to come off the injury list and will join the team tonight in Kamloops.