Sunday evening in the Moda Center marked the fourth, and final, regular season meeting between the Victoria Royals (31-24-6-2) and the Portland Winterhawks (45-11-3-4).
After the first three meetings required overtime to determine a winner, the Winterhawks won 4-1 behind a 37 save, bounce back effort by goaltender Joel Hofer.
“Joel had a great night tonight,” Portland’s head coach Mike Johnston said following the win. “I thought he made some excellent saves, grade-A saves when we needed him to. Once we counter punched and went down and scored after a couple of good saves. I thought he made some really good ones in the third period. It was a very competitive game and was one of those ones where if you make the mistake it could be the difference in the game. It wasn’t really a 4-1 game, it was closer than that.”
Victoria’s bench boss Dan Price was proud of his team’s effort despite the loss. “I thought we played better than we did last night getting the point. Portland played very well also, but I just thought we did a much better job in the neutral zone, limited their speed a little bit more effectively, created a bit more transition on our transition rush attack ourselves.”
Price mentioned how mistakes ended up costing the Royals. “There were errors of course like every game. Portland made errors, we made errors. Some of our errors unfortunately led to goals against, but some of the chances we created by forcing some errors in Portland’s end led to great chances. I thought Hofer was excellent, first star, made some great saves.”
Victoria was on its game early as Portland was not credited with a shot on goal in the first six minutes of the game.
Similar to Saturday though, Portland scored two goals in quick succession towards the tail end of a period to change the landscape of the game.
First, 17-year-old Tyson Kozak opened the scoring with his 13th goal of the season. The rookie center previously had two opportunities in the slot which missed earlier in the period. However, he made no mistake on his third opportunity putting in a rebound in front of Adam Evanoff.
Johnston has been impressed with Kozak’s play, “We consider him a good all-around player for us. He is good on both sides of the puck and has become a penalty killer with (Reece) Newkirk out. He is a key, key guy for us and he chips in. I think he is very young and is going to start to score in this league for sure. He had a lot of good looks tonight.”
Less than two minutes later, overage forward Jake Gricius scored his fourth goal in as many games. The puck went in on Evanoff and bounced out front for the Colorado Springs, Colorado, native to give Portland a 2-0 advantage.
After not scoring a goal in the month of February, the six-foot-three, 200-pound centerman knew he had to keep battling. “I’ve just been getting pucks on net. I went into a little bit of a drought there, but I knew they had to start coming eventually.” While finding his scoring touch again, Gricius never lost sight of what makes him an effective WHL player. “Faceoffs, playing a 200-foot game, being able to shut down the other team’s top line, is something I take a lot of pride in.”
In the second period the teams traded similar looking power-play goals.
First Brayden Tracey found the back of the net on the man advantage with a seam pass from Tarun Fizer. The pass cut through Portland’s penalty kill box and a perfectly placed wrist shot cut to Royals deficit to 2-1.
Not only did Tracey score the power-play goal, but he also drew the penalty leading to the opportunity.
Price mentioned how the Anaheim Ducks prospect bounced back after the opening 20 minutes.
“The best part of him for me was that the first period was actually not a good period for him. There was a turnover that led to a goal, just wasn’t really quite himself and wasn’t moving. He really took it upon himself in the first intermission to challenge himself and respond. He really got his feet moving, started making simpler, higher percentage plays. He drew two penalties, scored on the power play, was tracking and backchecking like crazy. More than the end result, it was more the change in process from the first to the second which I thought showed a lot of maturity.”
A kneeing penalty on Victoria gave Portland its second power play of the contest.
Winterhawks captain Johnny Ludvig elected not to shoot from the circle but rather pass across to a wide open Cross Hanas. The hero from Saturday night wired a snap shot high over Evanoff to restore the Winterhawks two goal lead.
“That seam pass where our players knew right away what broke down,” Price expressed. “That is usually a passing lane we take away, but it was also a good shot and a good play. We scored similarly going the other direction. That is going to happen when you have the extra man at times.”
The Royals outshot the Winterhawks 14-9 in the middle frame, and if not for Hofer, the deficit may have been erased.
A key contributing factor to the shot clock favoring Victoria was the shot blocking by both the forwards and defense. “That just came down to controlling the neutral zone more effectively, limiting their entries a little bit better. Being in front of Adam, and not letting pucks through the house or home plate area, there are some good improvements there compared to previous games,” Price shared.
In the third period Victoria pushed hard to close the gap, but Hofer shut the door after the Tracey goal and did not allow another puck to get behind him.
“Joel was unbelievable tonight,” Gricius said postgame. “I was happy for him, a bounce back game like that, had a couple of tough bounces (Saturday) night that didn’t go his way. That is hockey though, and (Sunday) he really stood on his head, was really happy for him. (After) a bad game you have to come out and prove everyone wrong, and I think that is what he did tonight.”
With the extra attacker on the ice, Hofer made a save in tight preserving the two-goal cushion. Eventually, Jarvis blocked a shot at the blue line and hit Jaydon Dureau for the empty net goal securing the two points for the Winterhawks.
The assist was the only point on Sunday for Jarvis as the Royals kept the WHL’s second leading scorer off the board most of the evening.
“I thought the gap control was good, the sticks were really good, thought we disrupted a lot of lanes both passing and shooting,” Price said about his team’s approach to slowing down Jarvis. “It made it tough for him to get to the puck on secondary chances. A big part of that is Adam as well in goal.”
Even though Victoria only walked away with one point on the weekend, Price still called Sunday’s game one of the better games his team has played in 2019-2020. “Overall, maybe not top three as far as best games of the year, but definitely in the top ten process wise. It is a tough building, Portland is rarely out shot at home, they are a very good team, one of the top teams in the country. We were right there on the road with a thin lineup in a position to win both nights.”
“Don’t get me wrong, you have to win, I’m not saying it is just a moral victory, but you also need to focus on the process at times especially games like this. If we had won and played poorly I would be dissatisfied, but we played well and just unfortunately Portland had a few more goals than we did.”
The Royals have a few days off before they make a trip to the Memorial Cup hosting Kelowna Rockets. For Price he called the game “exactly what we need, exactly the test we are looking for. We will get some rest in these next couple of days, but the guys are real excited to play Wednesday.”
The Winterhawks win meant they kept pace with the Everett Silvertips who defeated Seattle. Therefore, Portland remains one point clear atop the U.S. Division standings something Gricius enjoys. “It feels good to be back in first place, but we can’t really focus too much on the standings. So much can happen going in, we just have to work on our game and secure it. Everyone wants to go into playoffs feeling good, so we are going to keep pushing for that.”