The term marquee matchup is not usually heard so early in a sporting season.
But that’s what the Western Hockey League has on tap Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre when the Victoria Royals, 6-0 and No. 4 in the Canadian Hockey League top-10 rankings, take on the No. 7 Vancouver Giants (6-1 heading into Friday night’s game against Kamloops).
It is a reprise of last spring’s first-round playoff series in which the Giants, making their first post-season appearance in four years, took the Royals to seven games before a sliding puck block from former Victoria captain Matthew Phillips sealed the deal in a raucous Memorial Centre.
“This game is easy to get up for,” said veteran Royals forward Dante Hannoun.
On several levels.
Facing the Royals will be Giants captain Jared Dmytriw, who began his career with the Royals in 2014-15, just as Hannoun did. The fifth-season WHL forwards played together for three seasons on Blanshard Street before Dmytriw was shipped out.
“We always talk at the faceoff dot. Sometimes we make each other laugh, with a comment about the old days,” said Hannoun.
“I am happy for him that he is wearing the ‘C’ in Vancouver. Jared is all about speed and is one of the fastest players in the league.”
The Giants are rounding into maturity, which is why no one is surprised to see them in the national top-10, despite losing considerable talent from 2017-18 to the pros in Tyler Benson [Bakersfield Condors of the AHL] and Ty Ronning [Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL].
The Royals, meanwhile, were loaded with 19-year-olds last season and were considered to be in rebuild mode. But fast starts are nothing new for this organization. The Royals were ranked No. 1 in the CHL at this point last year when they got off to a 7-0 start. They won their first four games and were 7-1 in 2015-16, when they were also thought to be in a rebuild season, before going on to win the Scotty Munro Trophy as WHL regular-season champions.
“It’s special to be in the CHL top-10 but we’re not focused on that,” said Hannoun, who has four goals and seven points to lead Victoria in scoring. “We’re just focused on playing our game.”
That seems to be a common refrain in the Royals’ dressing room as they head into Saturday’s game as the only remaining unbeaten team among the 60 in the CHL: Enjoy the moment but don’t dwell on it.
“We don’t look at the rankings and stats at all,” said import Royals forward Phillip Schultz, who has two goals, and will represent Denmark in the 2019 world junior championship this winter in Victoria and Vancouver.
“We view every period like it’s 0-0.”
When asked about the keys to keeping the winning ways going, Schultz said it’s a simple formula.
“We have quick guys and we have played to that strength, and need to continue to play to that strength,” he said.
“We are very high-paced as a team and we fight for each other.”
The Giants feature Bowen Byram on defence, projected as a first-round pick in the 2019 NHL draft.
“The Giants, on paper, are the best team in the B.C. Division,” acknowledged Royals general manager Cam Hope.
“They have elite talent and can beat anybody in the WHL. This weekend is going to be a great measuring stick for us.”
Meanwhile, in good news for the Royals, 20-year-old defenceman Ralph Jarratt skated in practice Friday and is expected in the lineup this weekend after missing the last two games due to an undisclosed injury.