The Victoria Royals are getting hot at the right time.
The Western Hockey League team, fresh off a pair of overtime wins and having gone 8-2 in their last 10 games, begin the week tied with the Kelowna Rockets for top spot in the B.C. Division.
While the Royals (32-18-3-1) roll into Portland for a game against the Winter Hawks this Wednesday, they are no doubt anticipating the critical weekend coming up at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.
The Rockets (32-16-3-1), who just lost both ends of a weekend home-and-home against Everett Silvertips and play Vancouver on Wednesday, are in Victoria this Friday and Saturday (Feb. 9 and 10). Kelowna then hosts the Royals on Monday in the final head-to-head game between the clubs in the regular season.
While he wasn’t keen on looking past the Portland game, Royals head coach Dan Price said Tuesday the games against Kelowna, with the travel involved, will have the feel of a “mini-playoff” series for both teams.
“It’s not really a six-point weekend it’s more of a 12- or 15-point weekend,” he said of what’s up for grabs. “It’s huge, for sure, but it’s exciting. There’s really no pressure, no stress involved to it, it’s just a challenge, just an opportunity to go in and compete against another really good team with first place on the line, two awesome buildings and two teams that love to go head to head.”
The Kelowna transition game and speed have been successful against the Royals of late, with an 8-4 Rockets win in Kelowna the most recent example. Overall the teams have two regulation wins each, with a 3-2 Kelowna shootout win in December the lone exception.
Royals veteran defenceman Ralph Jarratt said Kelowna is always a “fun team to play against.” He knows it’ll be a challenge to get the better of the Rockets, even if they have cooled off a little, going 5-4-1 in their last 10 games.
“[We’re] just going to have to play a full 60, you can’t take any shifts off against those guys,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of scoring power and they have pretty solid defence, so I think we’re just going to have to play our game.”
For the most part, he said, the team is loose, and “I think we play our best when we’re loose … [even if] at the end of the day sometimes the points mean a little more than other games.”
Matthew Phillips was the hero for Victoria on Saturday, scoring two goals including the winner shorthanded from Tyler Soy and Scott Walford in the final minute of overtime, as the Royals beat the Thunderbirds in Seattle, 3-2. It was Phillips’ 38th goal of the season, keeping him on pace a second straight 50-goal campaign.
Jeff de Wit scored the other goal for Victoria, who trailed 2-0 after two periods and were outshot 40-34 overall.
At home on Friday, it was Noah Gregor scoring a beautiful goal from Soy and Phillips, 51 seconds into OT to give the locals a 4-3 win over Medicine Hat.
The Tigers had erased a 2-0 deficit with three straight goals, two of which came from James Hamblin. It was Soy who knotted the score at 3-3 with his 24th of the year at the 18:41 mark of the third period.
Phillips and Kade Jensen scored 1:09 apart early in the first to give their team a quick lead.
The overtime wins eased the sting of the 7-1 trouncing the Royals suffered last week against the Tri City Americans in Kennewick, Wash.