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Behind enemy lines: Victoria's view as Royals, Prince George Cougars search for first wins

Cougars' first road trip of new season is a doubleheader in B.C. capital
Cougars-Royals-Leppard 2019 home
Jackson Leppard (#8) wraps the puck around the Victoria Royals' net at the CN Centre (via Prince George Cougars/James Doyle Photography)

A popular season-prospective media narrative in the B.C. Division of the Western Hockey League is that the Victoria Royals and Prince George Cougars will have to pick up the crumbs left behind by the Vancouver Giants, Kamloops Blazers and Kelowna Rockets.

If so, that makes it crucial for the Royals and Cougars to win their share of the 16 points on offer in the matches between them this season.

That series begins tonight and Saturday in the Royals’ home openers at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

But no narrative is set in stone so early in a season, counters Victoria head coach Dan Price in an interview with Glacier Media.

He said there is a lot more parity than people believe.

“Prince George has really improved,” said Price, of a Cougars team that finished in last place in the division and conference last season.

Cougars forward Josh Maser and defenceman Cole Moberg were in the training camps this month of the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively.

Prince George played the highly-regarded Giants tough last week at home, but lost both games to start the season.

Price, meanwhile, doesn’t believe the Royals’ 6-0 loss to start their season last weekend in Everett against the Silvertips was indicative of what his team has to offer.

“There will be no easy points this season in our division or in our conference,” said Price.

He stressed the latter, bursting another theory that the power in the Western Conference has shifted to the B.C. Division from the U.S. Division.

Indeed, the U.S. Division is 4-0-1 against the B.C. Division so far, including three victories over the previous national No. 5-ranked Blazers.

“Every game in our conference is going to be a battle and that’s something you really look forward to as a coaching staff and as a team,” said Price.

The Royals may not have the potential future pros the Giants and Rockets boast, at least as evidenced by the 2019 NHL draft, but Victoria is a veteran-laden squad loaded with 19-year-olds.

The three 20-year-olds are new to the team — something unique in major-junior — but forward Gary Haden, defenceman Will Warm and goaltender Shane Farkas have been around the league and know it well.

“There are 11 new guys on this team and it’s going to take a while for everybody to get used to each other. We are learning more about each other every day,” said Haden, the former Saskatoon Blade, who had 31 goals last season.

“The opening game was not an ideal result but we learned from that and took it in stride and moved on.”

Haden noted the momentum in the game could have gone Victoria’s way if the Royals had buried two early breakaways, one himself, before the tide shifted on a power-play goal by Everett’s 20-year-old captain Bryce Kindopp, who was named WHL player of the week for doing what 20-year-olds need to do.

Dustin Wolf recorded the shutout for Everett and is one of several top-shelf goaltending prospects the Royals will face this season, including Trent Miner and David Tendeck in Vancouver and Island-product and Canada U-18 international Dylan Garand in Kamloops.

Count Prince George’s Taylor Gauthier in that group.

Despite that Gauthier was surprisingly overlooked in the 2019 NHL draft, the former Canada U-18 creaseman received an invitation to the summer rookie/development camp of the Boston Bruins and was invited back this month to play on the Bruins’ preseason rookie/prospects team.

“With goalies like Wolf and Gauthier, you’re not going to score on the first opportunity but on the second or third chances,” said Haden. “So you need to get traffic on the net.”

Meanwhile, the Royals’ 2018-19 leading scorer, Kaid Oliver, skated without an injury jersey in practice Thursday and is now day-to-day after missing the playoffs last spring and undergoing surgery over the summer.

Royals’ veteran import forward Phillip Schultz, a two-time world junior championship performer for Denmark, has yet to skate and was again out of uniform Thursday.

- with files from Cleve Deenshaw, Times Colonist