Western Hockey League playoffs are returning to Victoria for the first time since 1989.
The Victoria Royals open their first round series against the Kamloops Blazers in Kamloops on Friday (March 23).
The Royals clinched the post-season berth in the final regular season game on March 16, winning 3-1 over the Portland Winterhawks at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.
With the win Royals ended the 72-game season with 55 points and put them into seventh-place, ending a three-way battle for the final two spots. The Royals needed a little help to hang onto seventh and they got it, as both the Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds lost key games on the weekend and were unable to bump the Royals out.
“It was do or die for us coming in (to Friday’s win), even though we got help from other teams, that we were able to control our own destiny tonight,” Royals forward Mike Forsyth said.
“It’s a great feeling, a lot of pressure’s been on us the last two weeks. Coming into these last few games, we didn’t know how we were going to respond to it.”
The third line was the definition of clutch on Friday, with Forsyth scoring just his third goal of the season and earning his 12th assist on the first goal of the game by linemate Dakota Conroy.
Forsyth broke the game’s 1-1 tie in the third period in an odd play, and it ended up being the game-winner. Forsyth collided with referee Tyler Adair along the boards at the hash mark, got up, and skated to the slot where Conroy fed him a pass and Forsyth wristed it past goalie Mac Carruth, the league leader in wins with 42.
“I was in the corner, I get up, (Conroy) made a great pass to me, (Tim Traber) made a great screen, I stepped into it and it goes in,” Forsyth said. “I’ll do anything it takes to get it in the net. That’s just one of the ways it can happen.”
Moments later Jamie Crooks scored the insurance marker to make it 3-1.
Trivia buffs can chew on Crooks’ goal as it was the last goal of the regular season at Memorial Centre. Crooks also scored the first goal WHL goal of the season at Memorial Centre against the Vancouver Giants on Sept. 24.
Coach Marc Habscheid said his group didn’t have a preference about facing the second-place Kamloops Blazers, or first-place Tri City Americans, which could’ve happened if the Royals finished eighth.
“We haven’t given it a thought. A week ago odds were stacked against us, now we’re in the playoffs.”
– It’s the fifth time the Royals’ franchise has made the playoffs since it started six years ago. The Chilliwack Bruins never got past the first round, winning one game against the Spokane Chiefs in 2011.
– Forsyth, Crooks and Haydn Rintoul were the only Royals to play all 72 games this season.
– Brandon Manning, captain of the Chilliwack Bruins last year, played his first NHL game with the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, March 15.
– Winterhawks alternate captain Taylor Peters made some threatening gestures to the Royals while the home team celebrated the feat.
Said Habscheid, “Portland taunting our guys after the game just gives us more fuel going into the playoffs.”
– Jamie Crooks was named the Royals most valuable player for 2011-12 at the team’s award ceremonies on Saturday, and won the team’s top scoring trophy with 37 goals, 30 assists for 67 points. Among the many honourees were captain Hayden Rintoul as the top defenceman and Logan Nelson the top rookie.
Royals vs. Blazers playoff sked
Friday, March 23: @ Kamloops, 7 p.m.
Saturday, March 24: @ Kamloops, 7 p.m.
Tuesday, March 27 @ Victoria, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, March 28 @ Victoria, 7:05 p.m.
Friday, March 30: @ Kamloops, 7 p.m.
Monday, April 2: @ Victoria 7:05 p.m.
Wednesday, April 4: @ Kamloops 7 p.m.