The Prince George Cougars discovered a recipe for success on the weekend against the Kelowna Rockets.
On the surface it seems simple enough limit most of the shots against to the perimeter, get key saves from your goalie, and capitalize on your chances.
Such a formula isn’t possible unless it’s mixed with physical play and the Cougars had plenty of that as well.
In picking up a pair of victories over the Rockets at CN Centre, 5-2 on Friday and 3-2 in a shootout on Saturday, it helped that the Cougars had a healthy dose of players. In Saturday’s 3-2 win, only forward Alex Poulter was out of the lineup with an injury, a suspected concussion that the team’s staff said would keep him off the ice for about a week.
A variety of the Cougars who saw ice time in Saturday’s game contributed to the victory. No, it wasn’t the Brett Connolly show, although the 16-year-old rookie sensation scored the game’s opening goal midway through the first period, and collected their only marker during the shootout when he deked out Rockets goalie Adam Brown.
The team’s goalie in both victories, Kevin Armstrong, wasn’t the story either. The 20-year-old Winnipeg native played a major role, with 40 saves on Friday and 41 saves on Saturday. But he gave accolades of his own following Saturday’s win.
“I got to give a lot of credit to the guys because lately we’ve been having a pretty good commitment to defence and keeping all those shots to the outside,” he said. “Although they outshot us a great deal of shots, they’re all from the outside if you look, and the guys are doing a great job of keeping them outside and keeping it easy for me.”
While the Cougars’ Western Hockey League veterans played as leaders should, they had a solid support staff. Twenty-year-old WHL rookie Brian Matte scored a crucial goal on the powerplay that tied the game 2-2. With Rockets defenceman Tyler Myers in the penalty box serving a delay of game minor penalty, Matte redirected a point shot from Tyler Halliday past Brown with 3:15 remaining in regulation time.
Myers fell victim to another delay of game minor with two seconds short of two minutes remaining, but the Cougars couldn’t capitalize on that opportunity.
The Cougars finished 1-for-6 on the powerplay. Kelowna, which received even-strength markers from forwards Ian Duval and Colin Long, couldn’t capitalize on three powerplay opportunities.
“They expect to win, which is something we haven’t had here in a long time,” Cougars head coach Wade Klippenstein said of his players. “That’s a real healthy thing to have, and when the guys believe they can do it, good things usually happen.”
The Cougars’ willingness to play physical was evident six minutes into the third period when import forward Marek Viedensky, taking on an unusual role, went after Kelowna enforcer Ryley Grantham. After his teammate Matt Cumming hit the ice after a hard body check from Grantham, Viedensky skated in to defend his teammate. He connected on a few punches early, but couldn’t knock Grantham down.
“I wasn’t real happy that (Grantham) was the guy he was fighting,” Klippenstein said. “This is probably not a guy he needs to fight, but at the same time, it’s a 2-1 game and the next thing you know, it’s 2-2 so give Marek credit for sticking up for Matt Cumming.”
The Cougars improved their record to 18 wins, 27 losses, zero overtime defeats and a pair of shootout losses (18-27-0-2). They continue to hold down the 10-team Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff berth.
The Cougars are in Alberta this week for a three-game Central Division road swing that begins this evening with a game against the Edmonton Oil Kings. They play the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Friday and Medicine Hat Tigers on Saturday. Before returning home for a doubleheader against the Western Conference-leading Vancouver Giants, Jan. 30 and 31 at CN Centre, the Cougars are back in Kelowna for their fourth consecutive road game.
The Cougars have won three consecutive games against the Rockets, also knocking them off 4-3 on Jan. 10 in Kelowna. However, that Rockets team wasn’t the same as the squad the Cats saw on Friday and Saturday. Among the players who returned to the lineup for the latter two games against the Cougars were a trio of stars from this month’s World Junior Hockey Championship in Ottawa Myers and forward Jamie Benn of the Canadian national team, and Team Sweden forward Mikael Backlund.
Backlund was one of three Kelowna players who couldn’t shoot the puck behind Armstrong in the shootout. He also turned aside Long and Tyson Barrie. Dallas Jackson and Justin Maylan were the other Cougars’ shooters.
“I don’t know what it is with Kelowna, but we sure show up to play when we’re playing them so that’s good I guess,” Armstrong said. “It’d be nice to bump up a spot or two and see if maybe we can play them instead of Vancouver (in the first round of the playoffs).”