Monday, March 25, 2013

Assistant coach Enio Sacilotto (left), head coach Dave Lowry and the
Victoria Royals may be pondering what might have been as they prepare
to play host to Game 3 of their WHL playoff series with the Kamloops
Blazers tonight at Bear Mountain Arena.

When all is said and done in this WHL playoff series between Victoria and the Kamloops Blazers, the Royals are going to look back at the third periods of Games 1 and 2 and curse their luck.
Because as the series shifts to Victoria and games tonight and Thursday, the Royals find themselves trailing 2-0 in the first-round best-of-seven set. The Blazers, understand, are full marks for the lead, but, sheesh, the Royals have to be playing that old game of “What if . . .?”
As silly as it may seem, especially if you weren’t in Interior Savings Centre on Friday night, the Royals likely deserved a better fate in a game they lost 3-2.
Had the Royals won that game, who knows where the series would be right now. But, then, as a wise man once said, if ifs and buts were candies and nuts, and, well, you know the rest.
To refresh your memory, the teams were tied 2-2 going into the final 20 minutes of the series opener on Friday night. To that point, the Blazers held a 24-13 edge in shots and had scored twice in five power-play opportunities; in fact, they had received the game’s first five power plays.
The Royals showed that they are capable of playing a game that is physical AND disciplined, but they were guilty of taking some ticky-tack penalties — defenceman Jordan Fransoo taking an interference penalty for shooting away Kamloops centre Colin Smith’s stick in the second period comes to mind.
And the visitors paid a steep price for it. Still, though, the Blazers weren’t able to put them away.
After JC Lipon put the home boys ahead early in the third period, the Royals’ physical forecheck began to pay dividends and, for much of the stretch run, Victoria owned the Kamloops zone from the faceoff dots to the end boards.
On this night, though, the Royals weren’t able to solve the magical goaltending of the Blazers’ Cole Cheveldave.
A team isn’t going to win in the playoffs without goaltending, and the Blazers certainly got that on Friday night.
The next night, the Blazers were in complete control until the third period. Again. This time, they took a 5-1 lead into the final 20 minutes and certainly appeared to have it wrapped up. But the Royals gained some momentum from their power play, then got their forecheck buzzing, and the next thing you knew it was 5-4.
An interesting decision by Victoria head coach Dave Lowry — he lifted goaltender Patrick Polivka with well over one minute left in the third period, despite the fact that his guys had owned the puck in the Kamloops zone in the late going — allowed Blazers captain Dylan Willick to end proceedings with an empty-net goal at 18:52.
“I thought we had a pretty good game,” explained Kamloops defenceman Joel Edmundson, “except as soon as we started taking penalties they pounced on the opportunities and that’s what killed us. We stuck to our game plan in the first two periods. We need to focus on our discipline.”
Ah, yes, that old discipline thing.
As Edmundson put it rather succinctly: “You can’t really work on discipline, you have to have that in your head.”
So, to recap, the Royals can look back at Game 1 and wonder why they couldn’t beat Cheveldave in the third period, and they can look back at Game 2 and say that they didn’t really lose, that they simply ran out of time.
More than anything, though, they have to be wondering what might have been if only they had a healthy Alex Gogolev in their lineup. Gogolev, a silky smooth centre from Moscow, has had surgery to repair damage to a leg from a skate cut, so won’t play again this season.
The only two-spotter — a 20-year-old import — in the WHL, Gogolev led the Royals in assists (45) and points (65), all accomplished in 49 games, and he keyed their power play. He hasn’t played since Feb. 5 and the Royals are 6-13-3 without him. In fact, they won the first three games they played without him and then went 3-13-3, including the two weekend losses to Kamloops.
The Blazers actually are 17-3-2 against Victoria over the last two seasons, including regular-season and playoff games. When you look at those numbers, you realize the Royals really are up against it in having to beat the Blazers four times in the next five games in order to prolong their season.
Meanwhile, down the road in the sunny Okanagan, the Kelowna Rockets find themselves locked in a struggle with the giants of Puget Sound, the Seattle Thunderbirds. That series resumes tonight in Kent, Wash., the Thunderbirds having stolen out of Kelowna with two overtime victories. (Coincidentally, the Rockets have lost perhaps their best overall player, centre Colton Sissons, who is their captain, with a shoulder injury. He won’t play for a couple of months.)
The behemoths known as the Thunderbirds spent the two games clogging the middle of the ice and the area around their net, and the Rockets had trouble penetrating. The result was few scoring chances and two Thunderbirds victories.
As he rode out of town, Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk was heard to say: “We weren’t supposed to win anything.”
We can assume that he was at least smiling when he said it.
But in order for the Interior of B.C. to experience a playoff series between Kamloops and Kelowna — the teams will meet if they survive the first round — the Rockets are going to have to win four of the next five games with Seattle.
Which puts Kelowna in the same boat as Victoria.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca.)

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