With just 20 games to go in the 2015-16 regular season, the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals are making things quite interesting in the Western Conference. The defending WHL champion Kelowna Rockets have led the B.C. Division for a fairly long time, but the Royals look to take that title away from them as the postseason nears.
In a statement game that took place in Kelowna on Saturday night, Victoria came away with a 4-1 victory thanks largely in part to standout performances by forwards Matthew Phillips (2G, 1A) and Alex Forsberg (1G, 1A). The Royals showed the Rockets that they are closing in on last year’s most dominant WHL team; there is only a four-point gap between the two clubs for first in the division, conference and league – all very enticing accolades for the Victoria club to strive for.
But what makes the Royals such a threat is not just one game against Kelowna, rather, it’s everything that has happened since the calendar turned to 2016.
The Royals are currently on a nine-game point streak, winning eight of their last nine games. Currently, they’re riding a six-game win streak.
Their most recent run has been their best of the 2015-16 season, featuring two victories over the Rockets and two straight eight-goal games (against the Medicine Hat Tigers and Vancouver Giants, respectively). They have gotten a lot of production out of 2016 NHL Draft prospect Tyler Soy, over-age forward Alex Forsberg, captain and top defenseman Joe Hicketts and, like any serious contender, a wealth of depth scoring.
3 pts for @mattphillips_8 Sat to lead the @victoriaroyals past the Rockets 4-1, recap: https://t.co/nJFNBe4HAx#whl pic.twitter.com/xZgglOQ7Dw
— Marlon Martens (@VoiceVicRoyals) February 1, 2016
Although Kelowna is their biggest rival right now, the East’s Lethbridge Hurricanes have been the Cinderella story of the 2015-16 season. If they make it as far as the WHL Final, the Hurricanes could prove to be the biggest challenge of the Royals’ season.
Luckily for the Royals, they already know that Lethbridge can be beaten. They dealt the southern Albertan club their first loss of 2016 (just their second in 18 games) on Friday – just a day before beating the Rockets and pulling within just a few points of the league-leaders.
“It’s challenging playing the two top teams in the league back-to-back, but we can send a message if we play well,” Royals forward Matthew Phillips told the Times Colonist prior to the weekend. They came away with wins against both teams, a remarkable achievement considering the fact that each is a significant challenge in its own unique way.
Following their victory over the Hurricanes on Friday night, Victoria coach Dave Lowry said, “I liked our game tonight, from start to finish, especially how we managed the neutral zone. There were no passengers.”
The Lethbridge game was a statement to the whole league that the Royals can keep up with the best of the WHL; the Kelowna game, though, was a statement to the B.C. Division and the Western Conference that the Royals mean business come playoff time – they won’t be bowing out early and they should absolutely be taken seriously as a legitimate threat.
The Royals rank second in the league in goals against with 122, a statistic that is representative of their stalwart defensive unit and excellent goaltending performances. They have been the underdogs all season, especially leading up to their victories against top teams. General manager Cam Hope is so satisfied with his current roster that he passed on making a move at the trade deadline – a resounding indication that he believes in this club as they roll toward the postseason.
“There is such parity now that every team thinks it has a chance,” Hope told reporters following the deadline. “The Western Conference is wide open. We listened to everything. There was a lot of talk this year in the West, but not a lot of action.”
And why should there have been action on the part of the Royals? They’ve got a 65-point scorer in Alex Forsberg, a 30-goal scorer in rookie Matthew Phillips, a near-point-per-game defender in Joe Hicketts and a second-place standing in the Western Conference. This is a team that is ready for the WHL playoffs, and they’re ready to challenge the Lethbridge Hurricanes for the feel-good story of the year in their quest for the Memorial Cup.