Depth proving to be key to success for Royals in first half of season

Dave Kearsey
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Justin Barbour is shown in this undated photo. The Royals hold down second place in the standings heading into a two-game series against the Clarenville Caribous this weekend.

DEER LAKE  Fans of the Western Royals have plenty of reason to be optimistic at the midway mark of the provincial senior hockey league season.

The Royals head into the final weekend of the regular season before the Christmas break with a hold on second place overall in the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League game with a dozen games in the books in the 24-game regular season schedule.

At the midway mark, the Royals boast a record of seven wins, three regulation losses and two overtime losses for 16 points, four behind the league-leading and East-division rival Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts who have won 10 out of 12 for 20 points.

The Clarenville Caribous trail the Royals by a mere point with a 6-3-3 record, while the Mount Pearl H J Bartlett Electric Blades are fourth with nine points on a 6-6 record. The Gander Flyers (3-6-3) are fifth with nine points and the defending champion Eastlink CeeBee Stars sit in the cellar with eight points on a record of four wins and eight defeats in the first half of the season.

Fans on the west coast have been yearning for a winning team for a couple of seasons. The Royals have always made a push in the playoffs during some rough seas on the senior hockey scene, but always came up short in the quest to turn things around and get the fans back in the building.

The key piece to building a defence-first mentality within the group was bringing import goalie Bryan Gillis back into the fold.

The steady puckstopper has delivered in spades, playing every minute for the Royals for a 7-3-2 record with a 3.33 Goals Against Average and a .930 save percentage that puts him second in both categories behind Cataracts goalie A. J. Whiffen.  A local product, Whiffen leads all pillow stackers with an impressive 2.42 GAA and .930 Save Percentage to back up his 8-2 record in the crease.

The defence corps, led by imports Nathan Saunders, Zack Firlotte and newcomer Parker Deighan have made it difficult for opposing forwards to set up shop and have been able to provide solid support behind Gillis in mucking out some big points in a lot of close games.

While Saunders hasn’t been a big factor in providing some offensive support, his fellow import defenders have been pleasant additions with their ability to add offence to the mix.

Deighan has been the talk of the league since joining the Royals as a fill-in for Brad Woods who was unavailable for two weeks due to work commitments in Ontario.

It’s a pretty safe bet Deighan is going nowhere as he racks up the points with his new club. The speedy rearguard has amassed two goals and 13 helpers in just six games in a Royals uniform for 11th spot overall in league scoring. He is second in defenceman scoring, one point behind Luke Gallant of the Cataracts, who has two goals and one 14 helpers.

Firlotte has been a steady performer in his own end of the rink with a big physical presence, but he’s been able to see spots where he can join the rush and he’s been rewarded with 10 assists in 12 games.

Offence has been a concern for the Royals in past years, but this season there appears to be more balance with all four lines making contributions to the scoresheet.

The top line of Justin Barbour, Michael Hynes and Darren Langdon have piled up the numbers with the two kids among four players tied for third place in the scoring race with 17 points apiece, while Langdon, who is 40-something and still among the Top 25 offensive producers, is averaging a point per game with six goals and five helpers in 11 games while sharing the league lead in power-play goals with four.

Matthew Thomey, acquired via trade route before the start of the season, has been picking his game up a notch and has found chemistry with seasoned veterans Chris Peach and Brian Barker patrolling the wings. Thomey has five goals in 11 games, while Barker has eight points in 10 games and Peach  — who does his share of penalty killing for the Royals — has three goals and four helpers.

While most teams expect to get the most out of its two top lines when it comes to putting the puck in the net, the Royals have showed some depth as the trio of Scott Doody, Andrew Smith and Mathieu Berube have been one of the most consistent lines for the Royals during a stretch of hockey that saw the boys from the west rack up six wins in a row.

Doody is sixth in team scoring with six goals and four assists for 10 points, while Berube — one of the most improved Royals in all areas of the ice in the early going — has five goals and four assists in just 10 games.

Smith, who has seen limited duty from time to time since joining the Royals, has been one of the more physical Royals and has one fighting major to his credit. He has been a hard worker along the wall in a checking role, but has one goal and eight assists in 12 games.

Ryan Penney, who has been in and out of the lineup and still trying to find his groove, played on the top line with Barbour and Hynes in Sunday’s 6-3 win over the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts. He played with a lot of jam and fit in nicely with the two speedsters filling in for regular linemate Darren Langdon. The former NHLer needed 16 stitches to close a gash to his leg, compliments of a skate during Saturday’s game against the Cats.

Penney has three goals and three assists, but has the potential to be a top-six forward on any team in the league so things could get even better if the tough winger puts it all together.

The Royals can change the landscape of senior hockey with a big road trip to Clarenville. The Royals are on a roll, while the Caribous seem to be struggling to put wins on the board in the past couple of weeks.

The Royals clash with the Caribous Friday 8 p.m. and Saturday 7:30 p.m. at the Clarenville Events Centre.

The final weekend of hockey before Santa arrives will also see the other four teams trying to close out 2013 on a positive note. The Gander Flyers and Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts will play a home-and-home series with the Flyers putting out the welcome mat for Friday, while the Eastlink CeeBee Stars and Mount Pearl H J Bartlett Electric Blades will play a home-and-home series with the Gander Community Centre the venue for Friday’s first game of the series.

Organizations: Newfoundland Senior Hockey League, Flyers, Gander Community Centre

Geographic location: DEER LAKE, Clarenville

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