Sunday, April 14, 2024

‘It’s sacrifice’: 5 keys to the Victoria Royals’ playoff series against Portland

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The playoffs are coming back to Victoria, baby.

Your Victoria Royals are back in the pursuit of the promised land, and are set to faceoff against the Portland Winterhawks in their first round series

The series kicks off in Portland this weekend for games one and two, which are scheduled for Friday and Saturday night.

After that, it’s back to Victoria for games three and four next Tuesday and Wednesday, with game five also scheduled to be in Victoria Friday night, if necessary.

You can get tickets here.

The Winterhawks loaded up for this year at the deadline, adding top centerman Nate Danielson, the Detroit Red Wings’ 2023 9th overall pick. They look the part of a contender, and have been one of the best teams in the league all season, finishing 2nd in the Western Conference.

The Royals, meanwhile, had a great start to the season, creating headlines all year long with their resolve and knack for come-from-behind third period victories. In the new year, however, adversity struck, as the goals weren’t coming quite as easy and injuries piled up in an almost comical fashion. The Royals saw their position in the standings slip into 7th place.

But the team has much better health than it did a month ago, and so far, Robin Sapousek, Hudson Bjornson, Alex Edwards and Ryan Spizawka are the only players on the injured list. Sapousek and Bjornson won’t play this series, but Spizawka is a possibility later on. Edwards is week-to-week.

Can the Royals dig deep and stun the Winterhawks? Will two months of adversity serve them when it matters most?

Here are five keys to the series:

Sacrifice, compete, defending, and all hands on deck

Head coach James Patrick is no stranger to the playoffs, having led the now-relocated Winnipeg Ice to the WHL finals last year after a Conference Final appearance the year before. He also played in 117 NHL playoff games during his 20 year NHL career.

Whether you’re a favourite or the underdog as the Royals are in this series, playoffs demand a complete team performance. You can’t just count on your top offensive guys to carry the team.

“I just know that any [successful playoff run] that I’ve experienced, it took everyone,” Patrick said while speaking to media Tuesday.

“It took guys guys who aren’t dressed in the first games, it took your top line playing as good as they can … but just as well, it took your third and fourth lines, too.”

Particularly in the first two away games, the bottom half of the lineup will have to be ready for battle. Portland will have last change, and there will be times when their top guns get a chance against the lower end of the Royals’ lineup. It’s their job to leave it all on the line and either win possession or weather the storm. Goals never hurt, either.

And though it’s typically the grinding lines that we associate with blocking shots and battling, in the playoffs, that becomes even more important for the top lines, too. Every shift matters. Every shot earned can find a way in. And every blocked shot is one less chance for a seeing eye shot from the point to find twine.

“You need to defend,” Patrick said. “I’ve never seen a team have success in the playoffs if they do not defend well.”

“You have to defend, you have to block shots, you have to hit, and you have to take hits.”

The physicality ramps up in the playoffs, and it’s not just getting crunched along the boards. It’s absorbing cross checks in front of the net. It’s from powering through rubber legs on the back check after a hard working forecheck. And it’s from getting in the way of 130km/hr rubber discs flying toward your goaltender.

“That’s all part of sacrifice, you have to have a team first attitude. Nothing is about the individual, whether it’s the role you play, the ice time you get, or who gets the goals or points. It’s all about team first.” 

Trio of Pasternak-Reschny-Laventure has to break even

It will be no easy task ahead for the Royals’ most prolific scoring trio of Dawson Pasternak, Cole Reschny, and Tyson Laventure.

Pasternak has had an excellent season, slicing through the neutral zone in transition while leading the team in scoring with 27 goals and 72 points.

Reschny has also enjoyed a standout rookie season, scoring 59 points in 61 games as a 16 year old, while Laventure has been an excellent trade deadline addition, showing great touch around the net and complementing Reschny and Pasternak’s playmaking abilities.

And while the offensive numbers are no doubt impressive, when it comes time to battle the league’s elite in the playoffs, they almost have to take on a different role. They’ll be facing the opposition’s top lines nearly all series.

“They might have to be the best checking line on our team,” Patrick said. “They’re going to match their top two lines against them.”

“No matter who it is, they’re going to be playing against top end offensive players.

That’s especially true against Portland, who boast two forwards, Gabe Klassen and Stefan James, that both scored over 100 points. Only 12 players league wide accomplished that feat, and James was also one of just five 50 goal scorers in the league this year.

With Danielson anchoring his own line and the aforementioned James and Klassen ripping it up on their own unit, Portland almost always has a dangerous trio on the ice.

Reschny’s line will have some hard work ahead of them.

“I know they’re going lead our team through compete,” Patrick said. “They might have to be the best defensive line, and if they can do a good job of neutralizing them and then seeing what they can do on the power play, it might be that type of game.”

Shutting down Portland’s offense from the blueline

One of the strengths of the Winterhawks attack comes from the mobility and attacking ability of their defensemen. Defenseman Luca Cagnoni led the league in points from the blue line, scoring an impressive 90 points in 65 games. Only four other defensemen scored more than 70.

Cagnoni, a fourth round pick of the San Jose Sharks, has a playing style Canucks fans might be familiar with. He’s undersized at 5’9, walks the blueline with the best of them, and has been a creative force once the Winterhawks get set up in the attacking zone. He’s no Quinn Hughes, but in the WHL, he’s among the best in the league in the offensive zone, generating 233 shots on goal, 2nd among blue liners.

With defensemen Tyson Jugnauth and Carter Sotheran also scoring 40 and 41 points, respectively, it’s not just Cagnoni the Royals have to be aware of.

“Their D can skate,” Patrick said, “Cagnoni, Jugnauth, (Marek) Alscher, I can go down the list. They all skate at close to an elite level.”

And in today’s style of hockey, where defensemen are scoring more points than ever and are critical as cycling options on the attack or as the fourth man joining the rush, skating is an obvious plus.

“[Their defensemen] all create,” Patrick said, “and when they get possession in the offensive zone their D are so involved. Their lateral mobility along the blue line really presents challenges.”

“So you have to be in shot lanes and you have to defend in the defensive zone.”

Adding to that challenge is the Winterhawks’ tendency and ability to stretch the ice and create lethal counter attacks.

“They play the quickest transition game,” Patrick continued. “They go from defense to offense faster than any team in the league.”

With the talent of their forward group, they’ll look to spring them early and often for space to weave, create, and make life tough on the Royals defensemen. That means the Royals’ forecheck will have to be strong and disciplined, and the defenders will need to keep tight gaps when possible.

“There’s always one and sometimes two guys blowing the zone and trying to get behind your defensemen. And their D are skilled enough that they can make the plays and move the puck quick.”

Special teams in key moments

The Royals are going to be hard pressed to find offense throughout the entirety of their lineup, meaning there will be moments in games where a big penalty kill or clutch power play can make all the difference.

That won’t be easy, given Portland’s ability in both scenarios. They finished with the league’s 4th best power play and 6th best penalty kill.

The Royals, meanwhile, finished with the league’s 10th best power play and 13th best penalty kill. That’s a modest improvement from where the team was in the first half of the year, so it’s been slowly progressing.

And in a series where Victoria will be trying to grind their opponents down, limit scoring chances, and play low event hockey, special teams will be even more crucial.

“It’s huge,” Patrick said, referring to special teams in general. “Moreso your penalty kill. I have seen teams win without great power play numbers, but if your penalty killing isn’t as good as it can be, near the top, you usually don’t have success.”

In the first two games on the road, the penalty kill will be paramount. Winterhawks fans will be chomping at the bit for something to cheer at, and nothing silences a crowd more than a frustrated power play that spends time retrieving pucks, not cycling them.

Offensively, the Royals’ most important moments will happen almost every time they earn a power play. The Winterhawks are a very deep team and allowed the third least amount of goals league wide this season. It’s going to be hard to win the battle at even strength, so when the Royals get the man advantage, they’re going to need to bury a few.

How will the Royals’ rookie centermen handle Portland’s matchups?

An interesting test ahead for the Royals will be how their two rookie centermen, Reschny and Casper Haugen, handle the task of matching up against the Winterhawks’ best.

Both have shown significant growth this season, with Haugen stepping up in a big way once Robin Sapousek went down at the World Juniors this year. Haugen has been centering Tanner Scott and Reggie Newman in the top six, and has also found time on the first power play unit, performing well in both areas.

The other interesting dynamic is their size. Both players have plenty of skill, but stand sub-5’10. It will be interesting to see how they handle the challenge of containing Danielson down low, a 6’2, pro-style centerman who is ready to make the jump from junior hockey. He’ll be tough to contain in the trenches.

We’re not changing our lineup, and we are what we are,” Patrick said when asked about the size matchups. “We get down to this time of year and I don’t always know if size is always a factor.”

“It’s more how they play. Cole competes. And Haugen, for me, in the last two months, has been as good a competitor as we’ve had.”

Haugen has also done well on the scoresheet. After scoring 10 points in the first 37 games of the season – primarily in a bottom six role – the Royals’ 9th overall pick in the 2023 Import Draft has produced. He finished the season with an impressive 9 goals and 23 points over his final 25 games.

Reschny, meanwhile, has been facing top opposition all season, and will be used to going in the trenches against the opponent’s best.

“They compete and battle,” Patrick said. “I don’t care about the size matchup, I expect all of our guys to go out there and be physically engaged and involved and competing with two hand battles.”

“We’re going to need that from everyone.”

Catch games three and four at home next week

You can get tickets and welcome the Royals back to the playoffs here.

The home schedule is as follows:

  • Game 3: Tuesday, April 2nd, 7:05pm
  • Game 4: Wednesday, April 3rd, 7:05pm
  • Game 5: Friday, April 5th, 7:05pm**

**if necessary

Jeremy Weeres
Jeremy Weeres
Victoria Royals and hockey writer at Victoria Buzz

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