Coming off a holiday break, the Royals took on the Elmira Jackals Friday night in Elmira and Saturday night in Reading. On Friday night the Royals picked up their 4th win in a row and the 500th win in Royals history. The Royals beat Elmira 5-2 after picking up a two goal lead in the first and two more goals in the second. By the end of the third, the Royals would be able to pick up one more goal, while the Jackals were only able to score two more goals to try and close the Royals massive lead. With the four consecutive wins, the Royals were able to work their way up to third place in the Eastern Division. On Saturday night, they set out for their fifth straight win.
With goalie Connor Knapp and defenseman Adam Comrie called up to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the Royals started off Saturday night with a new face in the net. Joe Howe filled in for Knapp in between the pipes during Saturday night’s game, while another new face Matt DiGirolamo sat in as back-up goalie. In the previous season, Howe played 18 games with the Cincinnati Cyclones. Recently, he has played eight games for the Utah Grizzlies this season. He had a .907 saving percentage with Cincinnati and currently has a .886 saving percentage with Utah. The Royals have been experiencing many goalie changes so far this season, and have had a total of four different goalies guarding the net throughout the season: Martin Ouellette, Knapp, Peter Dundovich and now Howe.
Coach Courville explained his decision with his current goalie situation, “Well if you remember the last time we lost a goaltender, we were in a position where Knapp didn’t have his best game. When that happens, you don’t want to continue to keep them in the net. You want to have someone who can go in, so he doesn’t lose his confidence. Last time we didn’t make the best decision for those games. We knew we wanted to have Knapp play those two games, but unfortunately in that second game things weren’t going his way, and the other guy really hadn’t played pro hockey for a number of years now, and we had to put him in a position where he could be successful. It wasn’t fair for the team. We also heard that [Flyer’s goalie Steve] Mason was carried off the ice. We thought it would be more useful to have someone who could be long term. I knew Timmy [the Utah Grizzlies coach] had three goalies and that same day he had a guy sent down, so I think he had four. So I put a call into him and the kid was going through labors already; he had already put paperwork in. He said that he would call the league to take that away so we could make the trade.”
The first period started out sloppy with multiple mistakes, but luckily enough for both teams the score remained tied at zero for most of the period. In the last five minutes Royals’ defenseman Jordan Heywood scored his first professional goal with assists from Andrew Johnston and Olivier Labelle. In the night prior, Royals’ forward Matt Hatch also scored his first goal of the season. As the clock hit 16:00, Labelle received a pass from Johnston and shot it from the top of the crease. The puck ended up sliding past the net and into Heywood’s possession. He quickly took advantage of the situation and pushed it in past Elmira’s goalie Sam Marotta to give Reading the lead. By the end of the period, the Royals would outshoot the Jackals 16-2 and hit the locker rooms with a 1-0 lead.
In the beginning of the second period, Elmira fired back to kill the Royals’ lead. At just 3:36 into the second period the unguarded Jackal’s forward Lucas Bloodoff struck back and shoved one under Howe just after missing a shot seconds prior. Within the next five minutes Elmira took the lead by scoring at 7:55 into the period. Elmira’s forward Ryan Rashid shot one along the goal line and somehow got the puck into the net. The Jackals took a 2-1 lead and broke the Royals’ streak of 15 consecutive successful penalty kills. The Royals wouldn’t let the Jackals keep their lead for long as forward Pat Mullane scored with just less than four minutes left in the period. Mullan fired the show low into Marotta, but the puck had just enough energy to slide under his pads and over the goal line. Marotta turned realizing the puck had made it past him, but was too late. The last few minutes would go scoreless and the period would end with the teams tied 2-2.
In the second half of the third the Royals would reclaim their lead. At 12:04 Labelle scored his ninth goal of the season after Johnston carried the puck down the ice with help from Hatch. As Labelle trailed the two, he received a pass from Johnston and fired it past Marotta. Three minutes later Heywood would get both his second goal of the game and of the season. As LaBelle curtained in front of the net, Heywood shot one from the blue line and into the net making the score 4-2. This was not the first time this sort of situation occurred with Heywood though.
After the game he stated, “Actually, my first year of junior hockey, I didn’t score a goal until, I think it was February. I had like a 43-game pointless streak, and then I got two goals. And it was my first two of the season too.”
With time running out and Elmira down by two the Royals were getting comfortable with their lead, but Elmira wasn’t ready to give up. After a time out, the Jackals pulled their goalie in hopes of closing the gap. Their strategy paid off with only 25 seconds left in the game. After the Royals took a couple of cross ice shots and ended up icing the puck multiple times, Elmira scored. Jackal forward Matt Tassone slipped one in after Howe blocked a shot from defenseman Steven Shamanski. Elmira closed the gap, but were unable to score any more goals giving the Royals their fifth win in a row.
With their five consecutive wins, the Royals have worked their way up to third place in the Eastern Division and are also now in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. The Royals will play the Jackals again on New Year’s Eve at 5:30 in Reading. Elmira is currently in sixth place in the Eastern Division and eighth in the Eastern Conference. After that the Royals will be on the road the next weekend as they take on the Evansville Ice Men and the Indianapolis Fuel. Evansville is currently twelfth in the Eastern Conference while Indianapolis is in last place. The Royals have not played Evansville yet this season and the last time the Royals played Indianapolis they won 6-4.
The Royals seem to have been doing better on the road this season, and therefore the team has high hopes of accumulating more wins while they are away next weekend. Forward Sean Wiles stated, “We just have to work hard. When we get our heads down, we just need to keep working hard. I think that when we win our battles is when we play the best.”