The Prince George Cougars start a stretch of seven-straight road games Friday in Seattle, as they tangle with the Thunderbirds at the ShoWare Centre; puck drop is 7:35 p.m. It’s the second of four meetings this season and second and final game in Seattle. The T-Birds took the season series opener, 5-1 back on September 29th.
The Cougars are coming off a 5-4 win over the BC Division-leading Victoria Royals on Tuesday at the CN Centre. The Cougars were almost a victim of another Royals third period rally, but Max Kryski broke a 4-4 tie late, scoring the game-winner and his first WHL goal with just five and half minutes left. Prince George led 3-0 after the second, like they did Sunday against Victoria but they found a way to see it through. The Cougars, without three of their top four scorers, took three out of four points against the top team in the Western Conference. Portland has since overtaken the Royals for first place in the west.
The Thunderbirds lost both games last weekend, losing 6-5 in overtime at home to Tri-City Friday and losing 9-2 the next night in Spokane. They were down 5-2 in the third period Friday, before scoring three over the final 20-minutes to force the extra frame. They then opened the scoring in Spokane the next night, but then saw the Chiefs go off for eight unanswered goals, including four in the second.
Tuesday was also the debut of 16-year-old call up Cole Beamin and 20-year-old Nic Holowko. Beamin, called up after Dennis Cholowski left for Canada’s National Junior Team Selection Camp, played in his first WHL game on the Cougars’ blue-line. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, native was the Cougars second-round pick the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. Holowko was signed by the team Monday, after fellow 20-year-old forward Brogan O’Brien was put on the Injured Reserve with a long-term lower-body injury. Holowko started the season with the Kamloops Blazers before being put on 20-year-old waivers.
Despite injuries and a depleted line up, the Cougars have managed to win three of their last five games, and have picked up at least a point in four straight games. The Cougars won Tuesday against Victoria, suffered an overtime setback Sunday against the Royals, beat Kootenay last Tuesday and split a weekend set with Vancouver before that. The Cougars are also getting some reinforcements ahead of the weekend.
Captain Dennis Cholowski was returned to the Cougars Thursday night, as he was released from Canada’s National Junior Team Selection Camp in St. Catherines, Ontario. Cholowski was one of 11 defencemen vying for a spot on Team Canada’s World Junior team. Cholowski is expected to be in the line up Friday against Seattle.
The Cougars also get their top goal-scorer back in Kody McDonald, who sat out the last three game due to suspension. At the time of his suspension, McDonald was the team’s leader in goals (15), points (27), power-play goals (5) and game-winning goals (4). Jared Bethune has since taken over the points lead (30) but McDonald’s 15 goals is still tops on the Cougars’ roster. McDonald will certainly provided a boost to the Cougars’ top-six and power-play.
Tavin Grant picked up his eighth win Tuesday and is the projected starter against the Thunderbirds. Despite allowing four goals in the third period against Victoria, Grant was very sharp, still making 41-saves and a few clutch ones. One of his best saves was a right-pad stop on Victoria’s Tyler Soy, during a Royals’ power-play in a 4-4 tie late in the third period. Grant lunged out to stop the tip and the Cougars eventually killed-off that penalty, which led to Kryski scoring the game-winner. Grant seems to play at his best in the “big games.”
Speaking of big games, Friday’s contest is big for both teams. Coming into Friday’s head-to-head battle, the Cougars and Thunderbirds sit on the outside looking in, when it comes to the Western Conference playoff race. The Cougars are 10th, two back of the Kamloops Blazers for the final Wildcard spot. The Thunderbirds are just a point ahead of the Cougars in ninth. A win by either team, coupled with a Moose Jaw win over Kamloops, and they leap into that second Wildcard spot.
Both Richard Matvichuk and Matt O’Dette will be underscoring the importance of consistency. The two coaches have seen their teams struggle in stringing together 60-minutes of hockey in the two games. The Cougars third periods were sore spots in the last two outings, and the Thunderbirds have been crippled by their subpar showings in the middle frame in their last two losses. The Cougars have been outscored 8-2 in their last two third periods, and the T-Birds have been outscored 8-0 in their last two second periods.
Despite their last two third periods, the Cougars have been a scrappy bunch and are 3-1-1-0 in their last five and have put themselves right back in the playoff race.
The Thunderbirds have gone 2-2-1-0 over their past five games, and have only won three of their last 10 games (3-5-2-0). Since their four-game win streak ended on November 2nd, the T-Birds have lost 12 of their last 16 (4-9-3-0).
Seattle is still without 17-year-old goaltender Carl Stankowski, who’s still on the Injured Reserve. As a 16-year-old, Stankowski backstopped the T-Birds to the 2017 WHL championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup. However, Stankowski suffered an off-season injury and hasn’t returned to the crease. Matt Berlin and Liam Hughes have shouldered the load in the T-Birds net, but they’ve recently gone out and got Prince George native Dorrin Luding from Everett. Luding has started four games for the T-Birds but is still in search of his first win (0-3-1-0).
One line that has seized their opportunity is the trio of Jared Bethune, Aaron Boyd and Josh Curtis. Since being put together in Kamloops on November 25th, the three have combined for seven goals and 25 points in seven games. During that stretch Bethune has three goals and nine points, Boyd has a goal and eight points and Curtis three goals and eight points as well. Josh Maser has found his scoring touch, as the 18-year-old has six goals in his last six games. Maser had a hat-trick Sunday, after scoring two against Kootenay last Tuesday.
Austin Strand has been a key piece to the Seattle blue-line, as he has tied for the team lead in points in 29. Strand is the ninth-highest scoring defenceman in the entire WHL. Nolan Volcan and Donovan Neuls are tied with Strand, as they too have 29 points. Zak Andrusiak had a four-point game in the T-Birds loss to Tri-City last Friday. Sami Moilanen, who had a hat-trick against the Cougars in September, has three points in his last three games.
-Prince George Cougars