Battle Royale — Blazers and Royals to square off in Round 1
Things got ugly last time the Kamloops Blazers and Victoria Royals met.
There were 156 minutes in penalties doled out on March 5 at Interior Savings Centre, 93 of them assessed to Victoria in the third period.
In addition, a pair of Royals — head coach Dave Lowry and forward Tim Traber — were suspended by the Western Hockey League.
Game 1 of the opening-round best-of-seven playoff series between the two teams will be played at Interior Savings Centre on Friday, March 22.
Will the bad blood — which really started to flow in Round 1 of the playoffs last season, when the Blazers swept the Royals 4-0 — spill over when the puck drops at 7 p.m.?
“I think we can use it as a little bit of fire,” Kamloops defenceman Tyler Hansen said. “But, at the same time, we’re not going to do anything stupid.”
In the March battle royale, Traber cinched up on Kale Kessy’s jersey, choking the Blazer forward unconscious.
Kessy, who still bears marks on his neck from the incident, has no elaborate plans for retribution.
“I’m not going to go looking to get even with him,” Kessy said.
“I’m not going to go looking to fight that guy. We need him on the ice. We’re just going to focus on our game and not let anything distract us.”
Discipline will likely be key if Kamloops is to reach Round 2, with its Vancouver Island foes known for relying on toughness and physicality for much of their success, and head coach Dave Lowry saying the suspensions handed out by the league will not alter his team’s approach to the series.
“We’re not going to change the way that our team has to play,” he said.
“We know we’ve had emotional games every time we play. They’re physical, they’re emotional and they’re intense. It’ll continue along that way.”
The Royals will be without their MVP and leading scorer Alex Gogolev for the rest of the season. A deep leg cut suffered on Feb. 5 ended the 20-year-old stud’s WHL career.
Victoria does have a capable supporting cast up front — Brandon Magee, Jamie Crooks, Ben Walker and Steven Hodges, to name a few — and, if he is able to overcome a nagging lower-body injury, Patrik Polivka is capable between the pipes.
The Royals’ bread-and-butter, though, is a physical game, played by forwards who forecheck aggressively and sizeable blueliners who play big in front of the net.
“From our perspective, we’re going to have our hands full,” Kamloops associate coach Dave Hunchak said.
“They [the Royals] are a year older, they’ve got some guys that went through it last year and have some guys who have a sour taste in their mouths.”
If the plan is to batter the Blazers into submission, Hunchak said his players are not afraid to engage in a black-and-blue affair.
“It won’t be an issue for us,” he said. “For the last two years, teams have taken runs at us. I feel we’re a bigger group this year. On our back end, we have five guys that are 6-foot-2-plus.
“People think that coming to play us, they want to be physical. We can play that game, too, and we plan on doing that.”
Victoria captain Tyler Stahl is known across the league and respected for playing a punishing brand of hockey.
He is injured, supposedly out day-to-day with a lower-body injury, and it is not yet known how healthy he will be come Friday.
Stahl’s presence in the lineup, or lack thereof, will affect the Royals’ ability to play the rough-and-tumble brand of hockey that helped them reach the playoffs.
The Blazers enter the post-season with a remarkably clean bill of health.
Centre Matt Needham, who has been nursing an upper-body injury, is expected to play in Game 1.
His return to the lineup presents Blazers’ head coach Guy Charron with a dilemma — with whom does Needham play?
Before the injury, Needham was clicking on a line with Cole Ully and Chase Souto. In his absence, Ully found chemistry playing with Brendan Ranford and JC Lipon.
KTW asked Charron about his line-combination plans. His answer, not surprisingly, was vague, but it offered an unexpected element of intrigue.
“Fans will probably be surprised to see some of the changes that we may have made,” said Charron, who of late has gone with Smith, Kessy and Tim Bozon as the Blazers’ first unit.
“It’ll be experimented with this week in practice. We’re projecting to try to spread out our talent on various lines and see what happens early on.”
Aspen Sterzer is still at home with his family, trying to recover from what many suspect are concussion-related issues.
He is not expected to return to the lineup.
Forward Joe Kornelsen is the only other Blazer nursing an injury (lower-body) and has not yet resumed skating with his teammates.
The Blazers, it seems, are ready for the post-season to begin.
“When I think about the Royals, I think about a team that’s big and physical and wants to intimidate us,” Hansen said.
“We’re a skilled team. Hopefully, we can beat them that way and we know we have the tough guys and we can play that way, too.”