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Cariboo Cougars take three of four possible points against Thunderbirds

The Cariboo Cougars wanted four points against the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds but they’re satisfied with three.

The Cougars, who are trying to work their way up the standings in advance of the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League playoffs, defeated the Thunderbirds 5-2 on Sunday at Kin 1, after the teams skated to a 3-3 tie on Saturday. The Cats started the weekend in fifth place and would like to be in the top four so they can host a first-round playoff series. With their results against the T-birds – who came into the doubleheader in second place – the Cougars gave themselves a chance to open the post-season on their own ice. They’ll complete the 40-game regular schedule next weekend with two games at Kin 1 against the eighth-place North Island Silvertips.

“It would be nice to start (playoffs) at home but I think we’re just as effective on the road as we are at home,” said Cougars head coach Tyler Brough. “Obviously it’s nice to have home cooking and home fans but the bigger thing is that this was a good weekend for us against a good hockey program and a well-coached team. I thought we executed a lot in the areas that we wanted to. Once we did get the lead the one-two-two (defensive alignment) we went into was very strong. We limited their opportunities and we had saves when we needed them.”

In Sunday’s victory, the Cougars were outshot 33-22 but got a solid performance from affiliated goaltender Tysen Smith, who was making his first start at the major midget level.

“I thought he was great,” Brough said of Smith, who normally stops pucks for the minor midget Cougars. “For a 15-year-old kid to step in and play the way that he did – he made the save when we needed it, he was pretty composed back there. Good for him. He’s a good kid. He’s been around the club for a while. He’s backed up, he’s watched some games so it’s good for him to get an opportunity to get his first win under his belt.

“I was a little bit hesitant (in starting him) only in the fact he is a 15-year-old kid and I didn’t want to put too much pressure on him.”

The Cougars have been leaning heavily on goaltender Kenny Gerow for the past several weeks because regular goalie Jordan Fairlie has been recovering from a lower-body injury. Gerow was between the pipes for Saturday’s 3-3 tie.

In Sunday’s game, Landon Ingham, John Herrington, Kellan Brienen, Hunter Brown and Fischer O’Brien, into an empty net, scored for the Cougars. They led 2-0 after the first period and 3-1 after the second. Ethan Willoughby and Arman Hosseinpour responded for the Thunderbirds.

Liam Vanderkooi started in net for Fraser Valley but was replaced by Jozef Kuchaslo after the third Cariboo goal, scored early in the second period by Brienen.

Smith was sharp in the early stages of the first period. Among his stops, he shut down Nico Marini on a partial breakaway. Smith looked confident in the cage, and his play allowed the Cougars to get on the board first. Ingham got the Cats started when he snapped a puck past Vanderkooi from the right faceoff circle after a nice pass from Brienen. Later, in the first few seconds of a power play, Herrington fired from the left side of the net and picked the short side on the Fraser Valley goaltender.

The Cougars jumped into a 3-0 lead 1:35 into the second period on a play that started with a heads-up, homerun pass by defenceman Pryce Peats. From inside his own blueline, Peats spotted a streaking Brienen and sent him in on a partial breakaway. Brienen held off a Fraser Valley defender in his wake and scored low on Vanderkooi.

The 15-year-old Peats started the season with the minor midget Cats but was called up to the major club after the Prince George Cougars snagged defenceman Aiden Reeves off the roster. Peats is on the smallish side but is proving his worth with every game he plays. He’s smart and patient inside his own zone so he rarely makes bad plays. And, as he showed again on Sunday, in his 12th outing with the team, he’s adept at moving the puck up to his forwards to get the transition game going.

“I can talk all day about the young man,” Brough said in reference to Peats, who hails from Chetwynd. “He’s a great kid, he’s nice to have around the room. I’ve said before, we’re not going to replace Aiden Reeves but Pryce has done a hell of a job coming up. He’s another young guy that has stepped in and played a big role for us. We’ve asked a lot of him and he’s just gotten better and better with practices and games. He’s got a great future, not only with us in the coming years but after that.

“(His composure) is remarkable,” Brough added. “It’s the little things that he does. Coming from a small community, from Chetwynd, there’s been some good coaching along the way. He’s bought into our systems, he’s listening to the coaches, he’s asking questions, and that’s what you want in your players. You can tell he wants to improve, he wants to do things the right way and as a young man that’s a great attribute to have.”

After the Brienen goal, the Thunderbirds made it a 3-1 game with a power-play marker by Willoughby.

Just 39 seconds into the third period, the T-birds cut the Cariboo lead to 3-2 on a backhander by Hosseinpour that found its way through the legs of Smith. The Cougars restored their two-goal advantage on a redirection at the net by Brown, who got his stick on a feed from Devan Minard, who was positioned near the right point. The Thunderbirds pulled Kuchaslo in favour of an extra attacker with about two minutes left on the clock and generated some pressure in the Cariboo zone but couldn’t solve Smith. O’Brien’s empty-netter sealed the deal.

The Cougars pushed their record to 25-10-2-1, while the Thunderbirds slipped into third place at 26-9-1-2. They trail the second-place Vancouver Northwest Hawks (27-9-1-1) and the first-place Okanagan Rockets (29-2-2-3).

The Vancouver Northeast Chiefs are fourth at 27-9-0-0, one point up on the Cougars but with two games in hand. Currently, three points separate the second-place Hawks and fifth-place Cougars.

Next weekend’s Cariboo-North Island games are set for 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and 10:30 a.m. on Sunday.

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Saturday’s game marked the 10th edition of Jameson Jones night, an annual Cougars fundraiser. Jones, who fought and beat childhood cancer, was on hand to drop the puck. Saturday’s 50/50 draw was generously supported by Lo Elliott Orthodontics, which contributed $1,000. The winner took home $1,157 and the other half of the pot will go to B.C. Children’s Hospital. In total, the game raised $2,314 for the cause.

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