After a slow week, the Western Hockey League had a packed schedule over the weekend with some big games. And perhaps the biggest story was someone finally finding a way to beat the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Lethbridge had its 10-game win streak snapped on Friday night, dropping a 3-1 decision in Victoria. Goalie Stuart Skinner was great for the Hurricanes, but the Royals stymied Lethbridge’s high-powered offence, limiting them to just 17 shots. The B.C. road troubles continued the next night in Vancouver when the Giants sent them to a second straight defeat.
It was the first time since November the top team in the league has lost back-to-back games. They continue to hold a five-point lead on the Red Deer Rebels in both the Central Division and Eastern Conference races.
With one more tough B.C. game to go in Kelowna on Tuesday, the Hurricanes have a somewhat light schedule after. They will move on from the Rockets with a home game against Moose Jaw and then three straight against non-playoff teams in Kootenay, Saskatoon and Tri City. With the race out east tight, the Hurricanes will want to get back on the track against those teams.
Royals refuse to yield
The Victoria Royals followed up their win against Lethbridge by picking up a big 4-1 win at Kelowna. Despite all of us so-called experts being down on the Royals to start the season, they are only four points behind Kelowna for top spot in the B.C. Division and Western Conference.
We've asked before how they're doing it and now, with 51 games in the books, we have some answers.
It's pretty simple really—they're scoring a lot of goals and not allowing many. It's the oldest formula in hockey, score and play defence.
Victoria is a good possession team with an estimated Fenwick-close of 53.79%, fourth in the WHL according to Prospect-stats.com. They're converting on their chances as well with a team shooting percentage over 10. That's translating into 3.51 goals-per-game, which is only topped in the West by Kelowna and Prince George.
The Royals are also getting great goaltending. It starts with overaged Coleman Vollrath who has a save percentage of .915. Rookie Griffen Outhouse has a GAA of 1.92 to go with a .938 save percentage in 17 games. In his starts he is 9-3-2-0 which is giving Victoria a pretty solid tandem in net. Head coach Dave Lowry also deserves a ton of credit with the Royals. He's gone from a roster with big, physical bangers like Austin Carroll to one that's built more on speed and skill. They've had a big season from 5-foot-6 rookie Matthew Phillips who has potted 28 goals.
With two wins against the league's two conference leaders over the weekend, the Royals have made a clear statement: They're not the team we all thought they were and they are going to make some noise this spring.
One of the toughest scheduling quirks CHL teams have to deal with is the dreaded three-in-three weekends. This weekend saw seven clubs try and make it through the gauntlet. The toughest of the three games is usually the final one.
Having to travel can add to the fatigue. Kelowna played at home on Saturday night and then boarded a bus to Seattle for a 5:00 p.m. game the next day—they were shut out 2-0. Everett had three contests over the weekend as well, and thanks to a sick back-up goalie, Carter Hart got the start in all three games and lost the finale 4-1.
The legs are obviously a worry but most coaches and players will tell you the mental part of getting up for that third game is a bigger key than the physical stress.
"I think it was more mental for us," Seattle's Ryan Gropp said after the third game this weekend. "I thought we really had some good jump and wore them down. It's obviously a big mental grind and you want to play hockey. Three-in-three is tough but we got the big win."
Gropp, a New York Rangers prospect, scored a goal in all three of Seattle's games this weekend.
Nobody is going to make excuses for failing to win the third game in as many nights, but there is no denying that it can be a factor and have an impact on division races. The good news is that no team escapes the three-in-three weekends during the season. So advantage, no one.
WHL Player of the week
Travis Sanheim, D, Calgary Hitmen
Sanheim set up four goals for Calgary this weekend to keep the Hitmen as hot as any team in the league. The big blueliner has been a big part of that and has helpers in 12 games straight. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect (17th in 2014) is having another strong season with 40 points in 30 games.