Victoria Royals ready for hostile Cougars den

It’s not unusual to see Dr. Saul Miller, one of Canada’s leading sports psychologists, in Victoria since he has worked with many of the Olympians who train here. But when Dr. Miller was with the Prince George Cougars last week at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, it spoke volumes about how much has changed with the Western Hockey League franchise and how serious it takes its New Ice Age mantra with the change of ownership this season after missing the playoffs the previous three seasons and five of the last seven years.

In addition to his work with some of Canada’s Olympians, Dr. Miller has also worked with the Vancouver Canucks, Seattle Mariners, St. Louis Blues, New York Mets and L.A. Dodgers, Clippers and Kings. You just know the new-look Cougars will be mentally prepared tonight when they face the Victoria Royals in Game 3 of their best-of-seven WHL opening-round playoff series.

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It’s just one of the little things the Cougars, coming off years of malaise on the ice and in the stands, are addressing.

The B.C. Division second-seed Royals lead the third-seed Cougars 2-0 following 5-3 and 5-4 victories last Friday and Saturday in Victoria.

“Fans are again excited about hockey in Prince George . . . there were 5,500 in the stands and they were loud the last time we were here [late in the regular season],” said Royals head coach Dave Lowry.

Cougars’ average attendance went from a paltry 1,693 in 2013-14 to 2,852 this season. That’s still only 19th best among the 22 WHL teams but it represents the greatest percentage increase in the league from last season to this season.

“We have to prepare to play in a hostile building and be patient,” said Lowry.

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Game 4 will be Thursday at the CN Centre, a building in which they are attempting to bring back from long-ago happier days in the late-1990s with the tradition of a playoff whiteout.

“It was almost accepted [by the players] that this team would not be in the playoffs [during the previous Cougars regime] and we wanted to change that attitude,” said the Vancouver-based Miller, who has also been a performance consultant for Nike, Sony, GM, Honda and Visa.

“We wanted to send a message that there’s a whole new situation and that the new ownership [which includes Cougars NHL alumni Dan Hamhuis and Eric Brewer] was going to provide these guys with any resources needed. This team has made it clear it is willing to do what it takes to be successful.”

That has translated to the ice.

“Now, the players believe they can [be successful]. We outshot and out-chanced the Royals in those first two games in Victoria. This series is not over,” said Dr. Miller.

Royals owner Graham Lee has also garnered a reputation around the league for doing what it takes despite the expense, including getting the Victoria team to Prince George on Monday — two days before Game 3. The Royals should be well-acclimatized for the series shift up north.

“Travel is part of the equation and you can’t use it as an excuse. Only weak teams do that,” said Lowry.

“It’s a change of venue, but it’s more about preparation. We’re confident in our game plan going into the contests up here.”

Among the adjustments that have to be made is on faceoffs. Prince George has dominated, especially in the Royals’ zone on power plays, allowing the Cougars to control the puck from the outset. It has resulted in five Prince George power-play goals so far in the series. That has neutralized what, on paper from the regular season, should be a huge Victoria advantage on special teams.

But it’s not always the player taking the faceoff that needs to be accountable, noted Lowry.

“The wingers have to help out more [once the puck is dropped in the faceoff circle],” he said.

Game 5, if necessary, will be Saturday night in Victoria.

ICE CHIPS: Royals forward Brandon Magee, who has five goals and six points over the first two games of the series, was named Canadian Hockey League player of the week Tuesday after being named WHL player of the week Monday. The 20-year-old becomes only the second player in Royals history to be named CHL player of the week, following Russian import forward Alex Gogolev in 2012-13.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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