In 10 games, the Victoria Royals beat the Vancouver Giants seven times during the WHL regular season. But if you take away opening weekend in September — Victoria tuned the Giants by scores of 7-1 and 6-1 — the series was more of a coin flip.
The teams met again in late October and since then, the Giants won three and lost twice in regulation, while three other games went beyond 60 minutes, with Victoria winning once in overtime and twice in the shootout.
But now comes the post-season.
The two teams drop the puck on their best-of-seven opening-round series, with games one and two March 23 and 24 at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Arena. The series shifts to the Langley Events Centre next week with game three on March 27 and game four March 29.
“I think both teams have changed since then (opening weekend) and we have played them tough,” said Giants coach Jason McKee, who guided Vancouver to the post-season after a four-year absence.
“They have very good forwards — older, deeper forwards — that are very skilled, and a good mix on their back end and a veteran goaltender,” he said. “The biggest thing is their depth, and we are going to have to make sure we are getting everyone’s best game from our group.”
“I just see this series as so evenly matched,” said Royals head coach Dan Price.
“The games were all so close, so intense. Even the ones that we won — lots of of last-minute plays or goals, overtime, shootouts, (it was) as close as it could possibly be.”
The Royals have seven players drafted into the NHL.
“They loaded up at the deadline but we still believe we can beat them,” said Giants captain Tyler Benson. “We have definitely had some battles during the year and as the season went on, they just got more and more heated.”
“They’re really a talented team and they’ve got some offensive guys who can really do some damage out there … we just got to take away their time and space,” said Royals defenceman Chaz Redekopp.
By the numbers
Buoyed by their superior head-to-head record, the Royals (39-27-4-2) finished ahead of Vancouver for second place in the B.C. Division to earn home-ice advantage.
Victoria was 24-10-1-1 at home while the Giants were 20-13-2-1. On the road, Vancouver had the superior record at 16-14-4-2 compared to the Royals’ 15-17-3-1 mark.
The Royals were second in the WHL averaging nearly four goals per game while the Giants mustered 3.24, 16th among the 22 teams.
Victoria is led by the trio of Matthew Phillips (48 goals, 112 points), Tyler Soy (36 goals, 92 points) and Dante Hannoun (25 goals, 79 points). They also had two other players with 25 or more goals in Noah Gregor (29 goals, 65 points) and Tanner Kaspick (25 goals, 64 points).
For the Giants, Ty Ronning set a new club record with 61 goals — second in the WHL — and also had a team-leading 84 points. Benson finished second on the team despite missing the first 13 games. Benson posted 27 goals and 69 points and his 1.19 points per game were just behind Ronning’s 1.2.
Trade deadline acquisition Davis Koch has been centring the top line with Benson on one wing and Dawson Holt on the other.
After averaging nearly a point-per game in Edmonton, Koch had a slow start when he came over with three goals and four assists in his first 19 games. But Koch recovered to post one goal and 11 assists in the final nine games.
The second line features import rookie Milos Roman flanked by Ronning and James Malm.
Roman was leading all WHL rookies in scoring prior to representing Slovakia at the world junior championships in December with 26 points in 33 games. But he was injured in his first game back in January and just returned to the line-up this month, posting three points in the final four games.
Malm led the Giants with 47 assists and was fourth on the team with 19 goals. And both Ronning and Malm tied for the team lead — and third in the WHL — with nine game-winning goals apiece.
Vancouver’s third line of Owen Hardy, Jared Dmytriw and Brayden Watts will likely draw the tough task of trying to slow the Royals’ top line.
Defensively, rookie Bowen Byram and Darian Skeoch make up one pair, while Brennan Riddle and Matt Barberis are the other to round out the Giants’ top four on the blue-line.
The third pairing features Dylan Plouffe and either Alex Kannok Leipert or Kaleb Bulych.
Plouffe led all Vancouver blue-liners with nine goals and 31 assists.
In goal, David Tendeck had a breakout season for the Giants .
He played in 48 games and was sixth with a 3.02 goals against average and fourth with a .912 save percentage. In 22 games last season, he had a 4.78 goals against and an .856 save percentage.
Tendeck did miss Vancouver’s final three games with an upper body injury, but he was on the ice this week with the hope he is ready to go for game one. If not, the goaltending task will fall on rookie Trent Miner, who joined the team in January.
Miner made nine appearances and posted a 4.20 goals against and .885 save percentage. Those numbers were inflated over the final weekend as he allowed a dozen goals, but prior to that, his save percentage was .904.
The Royals’ Griffen Outhouse played in 60 of the 72 games, finishing top 10 in both goals against (3.08) and save percentage (.914).
This category is ridiculously one-sided.
Seven members of the Giants have post-season experience, but have combined for just 76 total games.
Twenty-six of those belong to Dmytriw, while Riddle adds another 22.
By comparison, 17 Victoria players have playoffs games under their belt for a combined 336 games.
“We just have to use our excitement and get the adrenalin going,” Benson said, about making up for the lack of playoff experience. “It is going to be exciting hockey — the crowds are going to be packed and the energy in the building … we just have to play hard and play our game and we will have success.”
Victoria’s sixth-ranked power play (24.9 per cent) goes up against Vancouver’s fourth-ranked penalty kill (79.2 per cent).
Conversely, the Giants need to take advantage of their man-advantage chances against the league’s second-worst penalty kill as the Royals only killed 74.1 per cent of the opponents opportunities. Vancouver’s power play was 13th in the league at 21.9 per cent.
— with files from Don Descoteau Black Press