The Cariboo Cougars want a top-four finish so they can host a first-round playoff series. They continued their late-season push with a pair of weekend victories against the Kootenay Ice.
In B.C. Hockey Major Midget League play, the fifth-place Cougars defeated the scrappy Ice 6-3 on Sunday, after a 4-2 win on Saturday. Both games were played at Kin 1.
The Cats – now on a six-game winning streak – are trying to move past the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds, Vancouver Northwest Hawks or Vancouver Northeast Chiefs, who are all within striking distance in the standings. The Cougars’ wins against the Ice allowed them to keep pace with the Chiefs, who swept the host Thompson Blazers on the weekend, 5-3 and 3-2. The Cougars and Chiefs both have 50 points, but the Chiefs have two games in hand.
The Thunderbirds and Hawks have 52 points and one game in hand. The Hawks edged the T-birds 4-3 on Sunday and the teams will clash again on Monday.
The Ice came into the weekend in 10th place in the 11-team league but, backstopped by former Cariboo goaltender Colton Phillips-Watts, gave the Cougars a tough time in both games. Phillips-Watts replaced starter Carsten Shrimpton after the third Cariboo goal on Sunday (at 9:38 of the first period) and went the distance on Saturday.
“We took four points this weekend and that’s the biggest thing for us,” said Cariboo forward Alex Ochitwa, who had three assists on Sunday and scored the goal of the year in the BCHMLL on Saturday (more on that later). “Kootenay never goes away and they’re always good with taking guys that we’ve released from our team. There’s usually a guy or two on that team that didn’t quite make our team so they have something to prove and the team plays for them.
“Phillips-Watts was awesome,” Ochitwa added. “He was a great teammate, he was a great guy. It was tough that we had to let him go but we have a good group of guys here too. It was nice to see him do well still but obviously better to get the wins.”
The Cougars outshot the ice 41-23 on Sunday and 37-16 on Saturday.
The Cats were up 3-1 after Sunday’s first period and 3-2 after the second. Brennan Bott of the Cougars and Kaleb Percival of the Ice exchanged goals in the opening 10 minutes of the third but Carter Yarish restored Cariboo’s two-goal lead with seven minutes left to play and later hit an empty net for his third goal of the game and team-leading 22nd of the season.
Percival opened the scoring in the first period but the Cougars answered back with markers by Landon Ingham, Bott and Yarish. Kjell Osborne of the Ice (shorthanded) had the only goal of the second.
Cariboo goaltender Kenny Gerow was strong between the pipes and picked up the victory.
Ochitwa was buzzing from start to finish in Sunday’s game. Afterward, he was still smiling about his Saturday act of skill and trickery – a lacrosse-style goal that stood up as the game-winner. Just after a Cariboo power play had ended, Ochitwa had the puck behind the goal line to the left side of the Kootenay net. He skated behind the cage, looking like he was going all the way around, but stopped short, picked up the puck on his blade and slung it into the short side on an unsuspecting Phillips-Watts.
“I got the puck down low from (John Herrington), it was a nice pass, and I saw the (Kootenay) guy on the far side of the net. I don’t know, I didn’t really think about it a bunch, it was something I’ve tried a couple times in practice so it became instinct and I just put it up,” said Ochitwa, who leads the Cougars with 45 points.
“When I saw the d-man on the far post and not the near post, I thought I may as well go for it. You see (the move) a few times and you’re like, ‘I wonder if I can do that’ and you kind of just mess around and all of a sudden it happened. I got confident enough with it that I thought I could try it. I was 0-for-2 in practice so maybe there was a little bit of luck involved too, but it was nice. It was nice that it ended up helping our team in a positive way.”
In that game, the Ice had a 2-1 advantage when the puck dropped for the third period. Fischer O’Brien, Ochitwa and Bott, into an empty net, pushed the Cougars to the victory. Noah Quinn opened the scoring for the Ice in the first period and Herrington answered for the Cougars. Ethan Smyth gave the visitors the lead in the second period.
Gerow was the winning goaltender.
The Cougars (24-10-1-1) have four games left on their schedule, all on home ice. Tilts next weekend against the second-place Thunderbirds loom large and the Cats will finish off with a doubleheader against the eighth-place North Island Silvertips on Feb. 29 and March 1.
For the Cougars, the games against the T-birds (25-8-0-2) are must-win contests to give themselves the best chance of a top-four placing.
“Fraser Valley is going to be a good test for us,” Yarish said. “We’ve just got to come in, battle hard. If we play the way we can, we should come out with four points.
“They’re pretty big, they’re physical and they’ve got some talent – a couple guys in the top 10 in scoring so we’ve got to watch out for those guys, compete against them and play hard.”
The games are set for 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, both at Kin 1.