The Prince George Cougars have served notice early that they have a team that can compete this season.
They haven’t only won the majority of their 13 games. They’ve dominated on a couple of occasions.
Two of the Cougars victories have been by five goals or more. On Oct. 16 in Kamloops, they embarrassed the host Blazers 8-1 at Interior Savings Centre. In their latest outing, Saturday at CN Centre, the Cats outscored the Tri-City Americans 8-3.
Am I surprised? Actually yes, I am. But good luck finding anybody who isn’t at least mildly shocked by the Cougars’ start.
Mediocrity for the past few seasons has left the Cougars with continually low expectations from media and fans. Even entering this season, many people weren’t expecting the team’s stock to rise significantly. Sure, they had a healthy Brett Connolly and benefited from the first overall selection in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. They used that top choice to take Slovak blue liner Martin Marincin, who’s been as good as advertised.
You might even recall the Cougars’ placement in the Black Press predictions which ran on the opening day of the regular season on Sept. 24. All four contributors to that preview, myself included, placed the Cougars at the bottom of the five-team B.C. Division. I never asked the other three contributors Eric Welsh of the Chilliwack Progress, Warren Henderson of the Kelowna Capital News and Marty Hastings of Kamloops this week their reasons behind picking the Cougars to finish fifth.
I can imagine their reasoning was similar to mine. The Cougars appeared to have question marks in goal, had a relatively thin blue line, and no real proven scorer outside of Connolly.
Nobody figured the Cougars would be any worse off than last year. How could they be? They sported a CHL worst record of 12 wins, 56 losses, an overtime setback and three shootout defeats (12-56-1-3). But in a B.C. Division that’s been consistently strong, not one of us figured they’d improve substantially enough to be battling for a division title.
As of Sunday, the Cougars were tied with the Kamloops Blazers for second place in the B.C. Division with 15 points. More impressive than their 7-5-1-0 record is their offence. Their goals per game average of 4.615 placed them atop the 22-team league.
I can’t take back my initial prediction, nor will I try to. Here are a few major factors towards the Cougars success.
This Cougars team is a different squad than a month ago, and a major factor towards their recent success has been the contributions of new faces, players added to the organization after the regular season started.
Contributors to the Cougars’ success who’ve been added since the regular season started are forward Taylor Stefishen and defencemen Sena Acolatse and Cody Carlson. Add in forward Charles Inglis, added in early September, and Marincin, and there are elements the Cougars didn’t have last year.
“Those five guys right there make our team so much stronger,” Connolly said from outside the Cougars dressing room shortly after Saturday’s triumph over Tri-City.
The newcomers have won over the support of the Cougars captain, who suddenly appears to have plenty of offensive support on a newly constructed Cougars squad. On Saturday, the Cougars managed eight goals despite only one point, an assist, from Connolly.
Further evidence that the newcomers have been difference makers can be made by comparing the Cougars’ current record with their pre-season mark. They finished 1-4-0-1 in six pre-season contests and while they might’ve been missing players to National Hockey League camps, so were other teams.
From time away from the ice for personal reasons to stable play between the pipes this season, the triumphant return of goalie James Priestner has been one of the feel-good stories early this season.
Early last season, in his first campaign in Prince George, Priestner left the Cougars for personal reasons. The move was part of the early stages of a netminding carousel for the Cougars, as they ended up dressing about a dozen goalies by the end of the campaign.
Priestner’s passion for hockey returned and his goaltending efforts have factored into the team’s success.
In my prediction last month, before the Cougars’ flurry of moves at the beginning of October, I noted that having a healthy lineup all season would alone result in at least 10 more wins.
One month into the season, and the Cougars have been virtually injury free. The most significant injury in the past couple of months came to a player who’s no longer with the team. Defenceman Art Bidlevskii, traded from the Cougars to the Regina Pats for Carlson on Oct. 6, began the season sporting a thumb injury and had a projected return date of Oct. 20.
Saturday’s game had an announced attendance of 1,908 and, considering the Cougars’ previous three seasons, it’s no wonder spectators have lost interest.
Although they’re winning again, it’ll take consistent success this season to bring fans back. If they’re at or near the top of the B.C. Division by the new year, and can maintain a winning record in 2011, expect to see the spectator count rise leading up to the playoffs.