The Victoria Royals came back from Christmas break with a record slightly better than .500 and the feeling that they’d underachieved.
Now the Royals are in line to gain home-ice advantage in the Western Hockey League playoffs.
Jamie Crooks tied for the team lead with his 27th and 28th goals of the season Sunday night to highlight the Royals’ 5-3 victory over the Spokane Chiefs at the Arena.
Victoria (32-19-1-3, 68 points) won its fifth consecutive game and its 12th in the last 15 to break a fourth-place tie with the Chiefs (32-22-2-0, 66) in the Western Conference. The conference’s top four teams will have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“Right after the Christmas break, it was a really tough practice for everybody, but everybody battled through it,” Crooks said. “I think that’s the biggest point where it all started to change.”
Victoria is 15-5-1-1 since the break. The Chiefs are 9-11-1-0.
Crooks, who turned 21 in January, is in his fourth year with the franchise, which used to play in Chilliwack. He was drafted by Saskatoon in 2007.
“At the start of the season we went into camp and knew we had some talented players, but I think maybe we tried to do a little bit too much,” Crooks said. “But as we went on this season, we’ve seen what can happen when everyone plays simple hockey and everyone’s on the same page.”
Victoria held the Chiefs to four shots in the first period and five in the second. Spokane finished with 20, tying its second-lowest total of the season.
“When you get the opportunity to shoot, you shoot,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “But we were in the mode where we think we’re skilled and are going to make a play, and then the other team’s going the other way.”
The Royals led 2-0 after the first period and 4-1 after the second. Spokane’s lone goal through 40 minutes came from Dylan Walchuk when Victoria was on a power play.
The Chiefs showed more energy in the third period as Mitch Holmberg scored his 33rd goal, second on the team behind Todd Fiddler’s 36, and Adam Power recorded his first goal in the WHL. Holmberg has 62 points, two behind Fiddler and Brenden Kichton for the team lead.
The Chiefs were 0 for 2 on the power play and are 5 for 50 in their last 12 games.
“It’s guys that aren’t ready to compete,” Nachbaur said. “It’s four guys against five guys (on the power play) and our guys were standing around, not getting it done.”
Spokane’s lone meeting of the season against the Calgary Hitmen will be Wednesday at the Arena. Calgary defeated the Chiefs 3-2 in overtime last season at Calgary, Alberta.
Calgary (36-16-1-3) has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and is 20-8-0-1 on the road.