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Cariboo Cougars head into playoffs with a win

The Cariboo Cougars will now switch into playoff mode. And they’ll do it full of confidence after a season-ending hot streak in the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League.

In their final game of the regular schedule, the Cougars defeated the North Island Silvertips 7-3 on Sunday morning at Kin 1. The victory was their ninth in their last 10 games. The only time they failed to pick up the maximum two points was in a 3-3 tie against the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds on Feb. 22.

“There are some areas we have to clean up that we’ll work on this week but, all in all, we’re going into the playoffs on a high note,” said Cougars head coach Tyler Brough. “We’re on a roll. It’s all about momentum and confidence and I think we’re sitting pretty good right now.”

In a Saturday game against the Silvertips, the Cougars prevailed 3-2. They finished the season with a record of 27-10-2-1, good for 57 points. League play will wrap up next weekend, so their first-round playoff opponent is still to be determined.

Currently, the Cougars are in fourth place, one point up on the Vancouver Northeast Chiefs. Vancouver Northeast has two games left to play, both against the league-leading Okanagan Rockets. If the Cats stay in fourth, they will host the Chiefs in a first-round playoff series.

The top eight teams will advance to playoffs. Throughout the post-season, each series will be a best-of-three. The eventual champion will meet the Alberta winner in a Pacific regional series, which will double as a qualifier for the Telus Cup national midget championship tournament, April 20-26 in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.

In the season capper, Cariboo forwards Alex Ochitwa and Nico Myatovic both posted their first hat tricks in the BCHMML. The 17-year-old Ochitwa (23 goals, 31 assists, 54 points) finished the season as the team’s leading point-getter, even though he played only 30 of the 40 games. Myatovic’s goals were his ninth, 10th and 11th of the season. The 15-year-old prospect of the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds completed his rookie BCHMML season with 23 points in 37 games and certainly showed confidence around the net on Sunday. He scored in the second period and added back-to-back markers in the third. His third goal gave the Cats a 6-1 lead and they held off a late surge by the Silvertips for the win.

“It’s great for him,” Brough said of Myatovic. “He’s a 15-year-old kid who has bought into everything we’re selling him. He’s not a liability on the ice, he plays well defensively. And offensively it’s coming around for him and you can just see that in his confidence. He puts himself in great positions and shoots the puck well, which is unbelievable. That second goal of his (a hard, accurate wrist shot that beat goaltender Evan May cleanly) was a goal-scorer’s goal. There wasn’t a lot of room to pick there, and he found it.”

Myatovic said it felt “awesome” to get the hat trick.

“First hat trick, in the first year, and it was good to step in on the offence as well and get the win,” he added. “I was getting kind of frustrated in the first (period) when they weren’t going in but after I got the first one it felt like the flood gates opened and I got the other two pretty quick.”

Devan Minard also scored for the Cougars, who were up 2-0 and 4-1 at the period breaks.

In the Cariboo nets, 16-year-old affiliated player Landon Hatton of the Fort St. John midget double-A Trackers got his first-ever start at the major midget level and went the distance for the victory. Hatton became the seventh starting goaltender for the Cougars this season. He entered Saturday’s game in relief of Kenny Gerow and got the start on Sunday when Gerow couldn’t go because of a lower body injury. Gerow’s status for the start of playoffs is uncertain. Meanwhile, Jordan Fairlie, who has been out long-term with a lower body injury of his own, is scheduled for an MRI on Wednesday.

Injuries at the goaltender position have plagued the team since the very beginning of the season.

“It’s been a revolving door,” Brough said in reference to the number of goalies who have donned the uniform. “It is what it is. We’ve got to deal with it and move on and get someone to stand in between the pipes. It’s been an ongoing joke all year. I mean, it started in Game 1. I think we have seven guys that have wins and have used eight or nine different players. I’ve never seen anything like it. I can’t tell you who’s going to start Game 1 of the playoffs. We have to hear how Fairlie’s MRI goes and we’ve got to figure out who’s available. But we feel like our systems are strong enough that anybody who steps in there, we don’t give up a whole lot of shots, we eliminate the Grade A chances. We like who we have down the depth chart, it’s just who’s going to start Game 1 and who’s going to start Game 2.”

Hatton didn’t look out of place against the Silvertips. As a bigger-bodied goaltender, he covers a lot of net and plays his angles well.

“It felt really good,” Hatton said of picking up a ‘W’ in his first start. “I was a little nervous at the start but after a while I settled in and figured things out. (Playing on Saturday) definitely helped me get ready and know how it is at a bit higher pace than what I’m used to.”

In Sunday’s win, the Cougars outshot the Silvertips 42-25.

Minard, Ochitwa and Brennan Bott scored for the Cougars in the Saturday win. In that one, they came back from a 2-0 deficit.

The Silvertips will finish the season in eighth place with a 12-25-3-0 record.

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