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Winterhawks jump to series lead over Royals

Game 2 goes Saturday in Portland
Casper Evensen Haugen and the Royals dropped Game 1 in Portland on Friday night. (ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST)

It has taken the Victoria ­Royals 288 games to get back to the Western Hockey League ­playoffs and they stoutly tried to make the most of it Friday night in Portland. But that still wasn’t enough as the Western Conference second-seed Winterhawks scored three goals in the third period to defeat the seventh-seed Royals 4-3 in the opening game of their conference first-round playoff series.

Portland got two goals from prolific San Jose Sharks-drafted blue-liner Luca Cagnoni, whose 90 points in the regular ­season were the most by a WHL defenceman in more than three decades, since Shane Peacock of the Lethbridge Hurricanes recorded 102 in 1992-93.

The Royals gave the heavily favoured Winterhawks all they could handle and led 2-1 after the second period. Cagnoni, from Burnaby, gave the Winterhawks the lead in the first period. ­Overage-forward Tyson ­Laventure, one of only four Victoria players with WHL playoff experience (all with other teams), tied it just over a minute later.

Veteran Victoria forward ­Tanner Scott, making his playoff debut after 220 games for the Royals, scored in the second period to give the underdogs the lead before Carter Sotheran and Gabe Klassen and Cagnoni with his second of the night regained the lead for Portland in the third period. Defenceman Nate Misskey of the Royals, ranked for the 2024 NHL draft, brought the visitors to within one on the power play in the last minute of the third period but it wasn’t enough.

Royals defenceman Justin Kipkie, an NHL draft pick of the Arizona Coyotes, continued the theme of a big points night for blueliners with two assists.

Braden Holt made 30 saves in goal for Vicoria and Jan Spunar 21 for Portland.

Special teams are considered a crucial aspect of the post-season but Victoria’s power play continued its disjointed play from the regular season in going 1-5. Portland was 1-2. Another important aspect, and a Royals’ regular-season shortcoming, was again evident with the Winterhawks out-drawing Victoria 35-18 in face-offs. Face-offs mean puck possession and puck possession is everything in hockey.

The Winterhawks (48-15-5) won the regular-season series 4-0 against Victoria (29-30-9) with two of those games going to extra time in an overtime and a shootout.

The 2020 WHL playoffs, for which Victoria had qualified, and 2021 playoffs, for which the Royals would not have based on their last-place showing in the bubble season, were scratched due to the pandemic. The Royals then failed to qualify for the 2022 and 2023 playoffs.

Victoria’s first post-season game since 2019 was played at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum before 4,972 fans because the larger Moda Center is being used for NCAA Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight women’s basketball games this weekend.

The second game of the series is tonight in Portland. The third and fourth games, and possibly fifth, will be played Tuesday, Wednesday and potentially next Friday in the 2-3-2 format.

The opening game Friday got physical and chippy in the third period as the teams sent ­messages for later in the series. Victoria defenceman Austin Zemlak went out in the third period on a controversial hit in what could be a key loss for the Royals.

ICE CHIPS: The WHL announced Friday it has suspended Matt Henry, a forward with the Brandon Wheat Kings, for eight games for a violation of the league’s drug education and anti-doping policy.