Royals ready to face familiar foe in first round

Olivier Labelle led the Royals in goals during the regular season, including his 13 power-play goals, which the Royals hope will continue into the playoffs. (Mike Ashmore)

Olivier Labelle led the Royals in goals during the regular season, including his 13 power-play goals, which the Royals hope will continue into the playoffs. (Mike Ashmore)

It was a nail-biting way to do it, but the Reading Royals clinched the final spot in the playoffs by one point. After an up and down season, the players can forget about what happened during the regular season and now focus on the ultimate goal of winning the Kelly Cup.

“Playoffs are why we play,” forward Casey Haines said. “The regular season, we play hard, but you lose and you’re like, ‘Ah, we’ll get them next game.’ Playoffs, everyone’s going hard, everyone’s trying to do the right thing, everyone’s buying in. It’s actually just a completely different type of hockey. It’s so much fun to be a part of. We’re excited.”

The Royals head into the postseason as the eighth seed and will face the first place Elmira Jackals. The series will open Tuesday night in Reading.

The Jackals are far from an unfamiliar foe as the Royals faced no other team more than their division opponent from the north.

“Elmira is a very good team,” head coach Larry Courville said. “They work extremely hard. They’re going to get better – I’m sure they’ll get some guys from the American League with Binghamton not making the playoffs. They’ve had our number for the most part of the season, but we lost to them also four times in overtime or a shootout.”

The Jackals are the only team the Royals did not have a winning record over in the Atlantic Division. They finished their season series 5-6-2-3 with the last three games going Elmira’s way.

But the Royals don’t care what seed they are or what happened over the season. They are ready to put it all behind them and start fresh.

“It’s a new season,” goaltender Karel St-Laurent said. “Anything can happen and we feel comfortable playing Elmira. Every game that we played against them, we gave them a hard time and the fact that we’re starting the first two games at home is going to be a benefit for us.”

Elmira features a deadly top line of Artem Demkov, Mike Radja and Dustin Gazley, who won the ECHL scoring title as a rookie. The three combined for 194 points (76G, 118A) in 185 games.

But that doesn’t mean the Royals are short on talented players. They boast captain Yannick Tifu, who led the team in assists (47) and points (70) and finished sixth in the league in scoring. They also feature 27-goal scorer Olivier Labelle, who led the league in power-play goals (13).

“They have a great team, a lot of speed, a lot of good players,” St-Laurent said. “We have a lot of talent in the room with the changes made during the season. I think it’s going to help us for the playoffs.”

The changes made, which started back on Nov. 28 with the trade of Chad Painchaud for Tifu, had a slow effect over the season, but the biggest and fastest impact was felt the week of March 4 with the acquisitions of Ethan Cox, Ian O’Connor, Colten Hayes and Chris Doyle.

Since then, the Royals became seemingly unstoppable as they piled on the points down the stretch, finishing 9-2-1.

“We’ve been hot for the last month and a half,” Courville said. “The guys fought hard and committed to playing better defensively and worked harder at practice and the results showed up in the games.”

Some may be concerned that the team’s tank could be low on energy after what they accomplished, but the captain disagrees.

“Yes, we burned a lot of energy,” Tifu said. “Tired is in your head. We just carry that momentum. We can’t be too high either; can’t be too low. Carry that momentum without being too confident. It’s the playoffs. It’s 60 minutes – anything can happen.”

The biggest question heading into the first round is the goaltending situation for the Royals.

“Our plan is probably to have three goaltenders on our playoff roster because of the Toronto situation,” Courville said. “Whether Mark [Owuya] is one of those three, we’ll decide that Monday at the latest. The plan is right now is of course have Karel and possibly [Brad] Eidsness. We’ll make that decision Monday.”

The hope is that with the Toronto Marlies off until Friday, they will send Owuya down for the first two games. Until then, the net is in the hands of St. Laurent, who won them the game Saturday and gave them a chance to win Friday in Elmira.

“He gave us a chance in Elmira to get that point,” Tifu said. “We don’t get that point, we’re not here today to talk. The kid’s played really well. It’s hard for him. He didn’t play for a long time with Owuya and Jussi [Rynnas] coming back and forth and back and forth and he couldn’t have the net. Right now, Karel played great so I’m not really worried about what’s going to happen Tuesday.”

As far as any other help goes, Courville will be calling around to the AHL teams who are out of the playoffs to see if he can get back some of the players who were on the team at one point, including Dale Mitchell and Ryan Button.

As the opening faceoff approaches, it looks to be a slightly uneven match, but with the momentum and new defensive play, it won’t be impossible for the Royals to pull off the underdog win.

“When the puck drops, I have confidence in that group of guys,” Tifu said. “We just did something that’s unbelievable.”

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Categories: ECHL, Ice Hockey, Kelly Cup Playoffs, Sports

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