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Playoff preview: Cougars vs. Winterhawks

The Prince George Cougars mark their return to the WHL Playoffs against the same club with whom they battled in their last visit five years ago, the Portland Winterhawks.

The best-of-seven series begins Friday in Portland, where after five full WHL seasons, goaltender Taylor Gauthier is likely to make his WHL post-season debut for the Winterhawks, against the club with whom the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect made 166 regular season appearances.

Portland closed out the 2021-22 regular season in style, finishing with a 47-16-3-2 record and one point behind the U.S. Division Champions from Everett.

The Cougars finished third in the B.C. Division with a 24-39-4-1 record.

The obvious story entering the series is that of Taylor Gauthier, but the Winterhawks are far from a one-trick pony. Led by Detroit draftee Cross Hanas, Portland boasts three players who finished the Regular Season with 74 or more points. That trio does not include Lightning prospect Jaydon Dureau, who put up 11 points (2G-9A) in the season series with Prince George.

The Cougars offence is led by a pair of 2023 NHL draft prospects in forwards Riley Heidt (21G-37A) and Koehn Ziemmer (30G-27A). And while Prince George parted with Gauthier in that much talked-about trade December 27, 2021, goaltending is a strength with a pair of 2022 NHL draft prospects in Tyler Brennan and Ty Young.

Portland held the advantage in the season series, winning all four meetings and outscoring Prince George 22-8. In addition to Dureau, the Winterhawks got seven points in the season series from both Sabres prospect Tyson Kozak and 2022 NHL draft prospect James Stefan.

And while all the talk surrounding the December trade between these two clubs has been centred on Gauthier, the Cougars blueline received a boost, too, in the form of 20-year-old Jonas Brondberg. The Danish defender logged heavy minutes in his 35 regular season outings with the Prince George, logging six points (1G-5A) in the process.

Both clubs are looking to avenge first-round exits from their most recent forays into the post-season. Portland was bested in five games by the Spokane Chiefs in the first round three years ago, while the Cougars dropped a six-game decision in 2017 to the Portland team they’re set to face again starting Friday night.

No WHL Club has bettered the 67 playoff wins achieved by Portland over the past 10 years, as the Winterhawks go in search of their first Ed Chynoweth Cup since 2013. Prince George has yet to capture a WHL Championship, most recently reaching the Western Conference Championship in 2007.

Game Breakers

Portland Winterhawks: There are plenty of weapons to choose from up front in Portland, but 20-year-old winger Jaydon Dureau has been the straw that stirs the drink in Oregon over his 49 games. Only Cross Hanas (1.37) had a better points-per-game ratio than Dureau (1.35) this season. The product of White City, Sask. scored three or more points nine times this season, including a pair of four-point contests against Prince George.

Prince George Cougars: Leading the Cougars with 30 goals, including a stretch during the regular season in which he lit the lamp in seven consecutive home games, Koehn Ziemmer is a player to watch for Prince George both in this series, and ahead of the 2023 NHL Draft. The product of Mayerthorpe, Alta. was one of only two Cougars to appear in all 68 regular season games.

Goaltending

Portland Winterhawks: Since arriving in the Rose City, Gauthier has posted a 24-4-0-0 record and four shutouts, and over the course of the season the Calgarian registered a league-best .928 save percentage as part of his 31-9-0-0 overall record.

Prince George Cougars: Tyler Brennan enters his first WHL Playoffs as the top-ranked North American Goaltender in the NHL Central Scouting Mid-Season Rankings. Brennan finished the Regular Season with an 11-25-1-1 record, 3.58 goals-against average, .899 save percentage and four shutouts.

X-Factors

Portland Winterhawks: Forward Gabe Klassen has flown under the radar for Portland all season long, finishing the campaign with 33 goals and 64 points. Klassen’s 17 tallies since February 1 are the most among Winterhawks skaters, and he led the Club with 25 even-strength markers.

Prince George Cougars: Ethan Sampson led all WHL defencemen with 235 shots on goal and finished tied for the Cougars team lead with eight power-play markers; it’s safe to say Philadelphia Flyers prospect Ethan Samson is looking quite forward to his first WHL Playoffs experience. The product of Delta, B.C. is a clutch performer for Prince George, too. One third of his fifteen goals this season were game-winners.

Series Schedule

Game Visitor   Home Date Time
1 Prince George @ Portland Friday, April 22 8:00
2 Prince George @ Portland Saturday, April 23 7:00
3 Portland @ Prince George Tuesday, April 26 8:00
4 Portland @ Prince George Wednesday, April 27 8:00
5 * Prince George @ Portland Saturday, April 30 6:00
6 * Portland @ Prince George Monday, May 2 8:00
7 * Prince George @ Portland Wednesday, May 4 8:00

Season Series
Portland (5) at Prince George (3) – February 26, 2022
Portland (7) at Prince George (2) – February 25, 2022
Prince George (1) at Portland (4) – January 28, 2022
Prince George (2) at Portland (6) – December 1, 2021


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