Two tenths of a second were all that separated the Victoria Royals from the franchise’s first berth in the Western Conference Championship Series last April. But for the Royals and its faithful it was heartbreak. For the Rockets, it turned out to be equal parts jubilation and disbelief.
For Royals and Rockets fans (or those that watched the series in its entirety on the WHL on Shaw) the game will likely never be forgotten. For hockey fans entrenched in other WHL Playoff series or the Stanley Cup Playoffs that Tuesday night on the Island, well, what happened was as remarkable as it was unbelievable.
Tuesday, April 19th, 2016. The date marked the first game seven in Royals franchise history. In fact, it marked the first game seven of a WHL Playoff series in the City of Victoria since 1989. But that was a nine-game series, so actually, it was the first series-deciding game-seven in the City since 1983 when the Victoria Cougars knocked off Kamloops in the West Division Conference Semi-Final.
Meanwhile, the Rockets were just coming off a seven-game series win over the Blazers in the first round.
Kelowna has long been in the top echelon of the WHL’s Western Conference while the Royals were looking to finally break into that tier. After it was established in Chilliwack in 2006, the franchise won a grand total of six WHL Playoff games up until 2013-14, never winning a series during that time. The 2014 WHL Playoffs saw the Royals make it to the second round for the first time only to run into a powerhouse Portland Winterhawks squad. The following year, Victoria got another crack in the second round only to be doused by the eventual WHL Champions, the Rockets.
Last year, Victoria looked poised to finally climb the mountain and claim supremacy over its BC Division rival after claiming five of its eight regular season meetings with Kelowna.
The Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy-winning Royals held home ice advantage in the series and used it, edging out the Rockets 2-1 and 3-2 to take a two-games to none series lead.
In the bag right? Nope.
If there’s not evidence enough already for the benefits of creating a winning culture such as Kelowna has, here’s your case study. Battling a 2-0 series deficit, fatigue after a tense seven-game series, a talented-but-young blueline and the absence of key players such as starter Jackson Whistle and Arizona first-rounder Nick Merkley, Kelowna found a way. With 3-2 and 4-3 wins the Rockets leveled the series before posting a commanding 4-1 win in game five to send things back to the Okanagan and put the Royals on the ropes.
Victoria bounced back though, with a 3-2 game six victory in enemy territory to force a seventh and deciding game on the Island.
If you’re keeping track, that’s five of the series’ first six games that were determined by just one goal. In total, Kelowna outscored Victoria just 16-14 through six games. It’s worth noting that the Royals (3.9/gm) and Rockets (3.7/gm) ranked third and fourth respectively during the regular season in goals scored.
So there the two sides stood – a deciding game seven on a Tuesday night in Victoria.
It would be tough to say which team had the momentum at that point, but the Royals definitely came out like a house on fire that night. Tyler Soy struck just 1:44 in and Jack Walker made it a 2-0 lead on the powerplay at the 10:31 mark to send the sold-out Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre into a frenzy. The perfect start for such a contentious, low-scoring series.
Out-shooting the Rockets 23-11 through the first two periods, the Royals held the two-goal advantage as the third began. Kelowna just couldn’t seem to get much going.
Then Justin Kirkland made it 2-1 just 1:13 into the third period.
The nervous hush that came over the home crowd was as you’d expect. But confidence grew after Victoria killed a penalty shortly thereafter and with every passing minute as the home team stabilized and drew closer to a series win.
With under two minutes remaining it was time to lock things down for the Royals, and they did. Almost. Thwarting attack after attack, the seconds ticked away until less than 10 remained with the puck pinned strongly in the Royals’ corner.
Hockey fans have seen this time and time again. You know anything can happen but, especially as the clock ticks closer to zero, you don’t REALLY think it will.
The arena was deafening with encouragement when the puck popped out to the blueline with four seconds to go.
Cal Foote corrals the puck and sends it over to Kirkland. Three.
Kirkland has to out-wait a defender. Two.
Step, fire, tie game! The clock reads 0.2 seconds left.
If the game was in the Okanagan, the roof on Prospera Place may well have caved in. But it wasn’t, so this was the scene:
“It was like one arrow through 7,000 hearts at once,” said Royals General Manager Cameron Hope.
That may have understated things.
To the Royals credit, they shook it off and generated chances to start overtime. The momentum and confidence clearly resided with the Rockets at that point though, and Calvin Thurkauf took advantage of a scrambled play 5:56 into the extra frame to cap off the incredible comeback and send Kelowna to the Western Conference Championship Series.
There have been a number of great series in recent WHL history – Portland-Edmonton or Vancouver-Medicine Hat jump to mind for many – but you have to think that when it comes to drama this series was right up there. Could it have even been one of the best series, or at least game sevens, in League history?
One thing is certain – not a soul in attendance that Tuesday night in Victoria will ever forget it.