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Cariboo Cougars bounce back and trounce Blazers

The Cariboo Cougars were stinging a bit after letting a win slip away from them in their B.C. Hockey Major Midget League season-opener. They responded with a dominant performance on Sunday at Kin 1 against the Thompson Blazers.

The Cougars – 4-3 overtime losers to the Blazers on Saturday night after giving up a 3-0 lead – outshot the visitors 41-13 in the rematch and beat them 6-1. The Cats were lethal on special teams in the victory, as they went three-for-six on the power play and also scored while shorthanded.

“I thought our effort throughout the 60 minutes today was way better up and down our lineup,” said Cougars head coach Tyler Brough. “I didn’t think we played a bad game yesterday – we let up for five minutes, six minutes and gave them an opportunity and they executed, so hats off to them. I thought with our effort and our veteran players who stepped up today we didn’t give them much opportunity, which is awesome for us. The shot count kind of showed that, as well as the scoreboard. We’re very happy with the effort.”

Brough was especially pleased with how his players executed on the power play and while shorthanded. Along with the three power-play goals, the Cats kept the Blazers scoreless on their five man-advantage situations and came away with the one shorthanded marker by Alex Ochitwa.

“Obviously when your special teams are doing what they did today, then you have a very good chance of winning hockey games,” Brough said. “We went through our systems quite thoroughly with everybody on our bench so they’ve all seen power play and PK side, which is a bonus for us right now. We’re still trying to work out who’s going to play where, and where they’re going to fit in, but when we’re rolling our lines through the power play and we’re scoring goals, it’s key for us.”

On Saturday, after they seemingly had the game in hand, the Cats let their intensity drop and missed some defensive assignments. They paid the price when the Blazers scored four unanswered goals, including two in the late stages of regulation time and the winner in OT.

There was no letdown on Sunday. Even in the third period, with a comfortable 4-1 lead, the Cougars controlled play and netted two more goals. Defenceman Aiden Reeves hammered a power-play slapshot through the legs of goaltender Evan Pascoe early in the period and Landon Ingham completed the scoring at 11:25 with a one-timer from the faceoff circle. The 17-year-old Reeves is a prospect of the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars.

By the end of Sunday’s second period, the Cougars were outshooting the Blazers 30-8. After giving up the first four goals, the Blazers finally got on the board at 14:18 of the middle frame when Lucas Piekarczyk circled into the slot and wired a wrister past goaltender Colton Phillips-Watts.

Just past the halfway point of the second, the Cats pushed their lead to 4-0 when they cashed in on a two-on-one break created when defenceman Ethan Floris jumped up into the play and went top-shelf on Pascoe. Floris, a product of the Vanderhoof minor hockey system, took the feed from Fort St. John’s Hunter Brown, a 2018 draft pick of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels.

The Cougars dominated the first 20 minutes, outshooting the Blazers 17-2 and outscoring them 3-0, all the goals on special teams.

The Cougars moved ahead 3-0 with their second power-play marker of the opening period. The goal – Ochitwa’s second of the game – came on a quick wraparound play by the speedy winger from Prince George.

P.G.’s Carter Yarish gave the Cats a 2-0 lead at 10:54 on the power play. The 16-year-old Seattle Thunderbirds prospect was positioned in front and knocked home the rebound of a low wrister from the point by Floris.

Ochitwa opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal at 8:59 of the first period when he went in deep on the forecheck and forced a puckhandling miscue between Pascoe and defenceman Cole Senum in the Blazers’ crease. Ochitwa’s persistence paid off when he was able to coax the puck across the line into an unguarded net.

Brough said Ochitwa’s goal set the tone for the type of game the Cougars wanted to play.

“I think that’s the Cariboo effort right there that we need throughout the season,” he said. “We’ve got to be hard on the forecheck, whether it’s the PK or five-on-five. We have to be a hard-working team, we have to have the mentality that teams need to come and outwork us to get any points out of us.”

Ochitwa said he and his teammates were disappointed with letting Saturday’s game slip through their fingers.

“We came out flying (today) and it obviously paid off,” he said.

“(On the shorthanded goal) the goalie had it and we didn’t know if he was a puckhandler or not so I went hard at him and he gave it to me with the pressure. It was just a hard-working goal.”

While Phillips-Watts wasn’t overly busy in the game, he had some difficult saves to make. And, despite long stretches of inactivity, he made them.

“When we needed him, he was there,” Brough said. “That’s exactly what you need out of your goalie in a game like this.

“It’s very tough. To his credit I think he stayed engaged just by communicating with the d-men, whether he was getting a shot or just a touch setting up for the d-man behind the net and that’s exactly what we ask when you’re not getting a lot of pressure, not getting a lot of shots – stay engaged and make sure you’re focused and ready for that one shot that you get.”

The Cougars have a bye this coming weekend, which will give the out-of-town players the chance to go home and recharge. The next games for the Cats are Oct. 5-6 on the road against the Kootenay Ice. They’ll also be away the following weekend, in Abbotsford to face the Valley West Hawks.

The next home games for the Cougars are Oct. 19-20 when they welcome the Vancouver Northeast Chiefs to Kin 1.

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