The Spokane Chiefs began the 2013-14 Western Hockey League season with a 10-2 record, including back-to-back lopsided wins over the Victoria Royals.
Victoria stumbled to a 3-5 record to open the season, including losses to Prince George and Kamloops, the only Western Conference teams that didn’t qualify for postseason.
Those first impressions are long forgotten as the Chiefs and Royals prepare to open their first-round playoff series at 7:05 Saturday night at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, British Columbia.
The sixth-seeded Chiefs (40-26-3-3) had a solid regular season, but they were 13-13-1-1 in the last eight weeks. During that stretch, Spokane was shut out seven times.
The third-seeded Royals (48-20-1-3), who set franchise records for wins and points (100), caught fire several times after their poor start. Victoria won eight of nine games during a November stretch; another eight of nine (the exception being a 5-3 loss to Spokane on Jan. 3, the last time the teams met) from Dec. 15 to Jan. 10; and 12 of 14 from Jan. 21 to Feb. 19.
Despite their 3-1 record against the Royals this season, the Chiefs enter the best-of-seven series as underdogs.
“The times we have beaten them, they haven’t had a full lineup and we’ve definitely caught some breaks,” Chiefs goaltender Eric Williams said. “I’m assuming it’s going to be a different series. There’s a reason they’re ahead of us right now. We’re trying to chase them down and we’re going to fight for every inch.”
“Vic’s a good team,” said Chiefs right wing Mitch Holmberg, who led the WHL with 62 goals and 118 points. “They have skill, they have speed and they have good goaltending, too. … It’s going to be physical and I can almost guarantee it’s going to be low-scoring, too.”
The Royals allowed a Western Conference-low 181 goals, just two more than league-leading Edmonton of the Eastern Conference.
Spokane finished ninth among the league’s 22 teams with 244 goals, six more than Victoria.
“A lot of teams are built on one line or two lines, but I think (the Royals) have four lines that are really capable,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “They’re a solid team on defense and they can score when they have to.”
“Up front, their forwards are really skilled,” said Chiefs center Mike Aviani, who has accounted for 38 goals and 43 assists this season. “There’s a lot of speed there, and on the back end they have a lot of size.”
The Chiefs have a similar record to last season, when they earned the No. 4 seed and defeated Tri-City in the first round of the playoffs. Nachbaur said experience is the difference this season.
“You look at our ‘D,’ we play with … three young guys who have never played in the league,” he said. “A lot of teams have veteran defenseman and that’s your last line of defense before it hits your goaltender.”
Five Royals were on the roster when the Chilliwack Bruins lost to the Chiefs in the 2010-11 playoffs. The franchise moved to Victoria the following year and is still looking for its first playoff series win.
“We can dissect their game, but it’s really about how we play,” Nachbaur said. … “We’ve played some of the best teams to stalemates and won those games playing the right way. Our game plan has been preached all year and it’s up to us to execute it. When we execute it, we’re a pretty good team.”