This is the hill on which the Victoria Royals have historically expired.
They are winless in their last seven Western Hockey League second-round playoff games, stretching back to the infamous buzzer-beater Kelowna victory in Game 7 in 2016, the four-game sweep by Tri-City last year and the 2-0 lead the Vancouver Giants currently hold.
Victoria is 5-18 all-time in the second round in five appearances over the eight years the franchise has played on the Island. Is the conference Final Four and league Final Eight again to be the wall for a team that has traditionally been a feisty contender but never able to break through to the next level to be truly elite?
“You can make excuses, but each [previous second-round playoff exit] has been unique in its own way,” said Royals goaltender Griffen Outhouse.
“Obviously, when you get into the league top eight, things get tougher, and we haven’t been fortunate enough to advance beyond that yet.”
The B.C. Division second-seed Royals, however, remain buoyant heading into Game 3 of their 2019 best-of-seven second-round series Tuesday night at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre against the division- and Western Conference-champion Giants.
“It becomes a mental thing, forgetting about the first round, and refocusing and resetting the mind for the second round,” said Royals forward Dino Kambeitz.
That task has become more daunting following the lost weekend at the Langley Events Centre. WHL statistics could not be found, but as a general comparable guide to the uphill battle facing Victoria, only 14 per cent of NHL teams have rallied to win best-of-seven series from 2-0 games deficits in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“All season, we’ve talked about proving people wrong. Right from training camp, people did not give us much of a chance. Our job is to continue proving people wrong,” said Royals head coach Dan Price.
A storyline has been Victoria’s offence, which ripped 23 goals past the Kamloops Blazers over six games in the first round, only to turn pop-gun with a combined one goal and 25 shots on net over the first two games against Vancouver. It’s hard to win playoff series with those kinds of offensive stats.
“We felt our offensive chances, and time of possession, were really strong over the first two games,” countered Price.
“We had a good number of shot attempts toward goal. We hit posts and missed empty nets. We feel the quality of offence has been good.”
Yet, the numbers are glaring in terms of the dearth of actual Royals shots on net and the lone goal scored.
“We have to make sure of getting more shots on net. It’s one thing attempting shots, and another thing getting them through and on goal,” said Price.
Victoria forward Kambeitz concurred: “We’ve obviously got to get more shots on net while getting bodies in front of [Vancouver’s tandem-team goaltending duo of] Trent Miner and David Tendeck.”
A sadly historical Royals playoff bugaboo — injuries to key players — continues to haunt the organization like a bad dream. Veteran 20-year-old defenceman Ralph Jarratt, who scored the tying goal Saturday in the third period of Game 2, left the game before the 2-1 overtime loss at the Langley Events Centre.
Price said Jarratt is “day-to-day.”
Victoria is already 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 four games into a six-game suspension incurred in the first round against Kamloops. And adding to Victoria’s woes was the two-game suspension handed out by the league Monday to defenceman Jake Kustra for his cross-checking major penalty in Game 2.
“Our team is built around offence and defence by committee,” said an optimistic Price.
“We have lots of guys who eat up minutes and all our veterans are calming influences.”
Another series storyline, and one that was not unexpected, has been the outstanding play of the 20-year-old veteran Outhouse. The first two games, 3-0 and the 2-1 OT loss, were only close because of him. Due to Outhouse’s heroics, the Royals on Saturday were one shot from earning a split in the first two games, despite being widely outplayed.
“This is my last run at it [in junior] and so I’m trying to have as much fun as possible,” he said.
The product of tiny Likely, B.C., has given four seasons of yeoman service to the Royals.
“With Griff in the nets, you always have a chance,” said Price.
The fourth game is Thursday night at the Memorial Centre.