Prince George Cougars forward Troy Bourke skates with the puck in the neutral zone during Saturday night’s Western Hockey League game against the Kelowna Rockets at CN Centre. The Rockets downed the Cougars 4-1.
Looking to crown the Oil Kings
By Alistair McInnis - Prince George Free Press
Published: February 09, 2012 9:00 AM
Updated: February 09, 2012 9:11 AM
Wounded and beaten down, the Prince George Cougars are back in the basement.
The short-staffed and offensively challenged cellar dwellers still have hope, which is a good thing because they may be nearing rock bottom for the 2011-12 Western Hockey League season.
Looking at the standings, this weekend’s doubleheader (Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. at CN Centre) appears like a clash between Best of the East and Worst of the West. The Edmonton Oil Kings lead the Eastern Conference standings and entered Wednesday evening’s game at Calgary with 35 wins, 12 losses, two overtime setbacks and four shootout defeats (35-12-2-4).
On the contrary, the Cougars sport a 16-34-0-2 mark to sit last in the 10-team Western Conference.
“We have to be at our best to compete. I think that’s probably the biggest thing,” Cougars head coach Dean Clark said. “When you see them play, I think they’re going to have a lineup that’s very good, their back end is excellent and their goaltender plays very solid. I think that that’s the most competitive team from the East, I think, right now that I can see and it’ll certainly be tough for us.”
While the Oil Kings carry depth in all positions, the biggest advantage they may have on the Cougars is offence. The two-game set represents a battle between the highest and lowest scoring teams in the 22-team league. Prior to their Wednesday night contest against the Calgary Hitmen, the Oil Kings recorded 226 goals in 53 games, almost twice as many as the Cougars’ 114 tallies in 52 games. They had 10 players with double-digit goal totals, compared to five for the Cougars.
As of Wednesday, six players in the Edmonton lineup had more points than Cougars’ leading scorer Troy Bourke, who has 35 (nine goals and 26 assists).
Leading the Oil Kings’ potent offence is Michael St. Croix, who ranked fifth in league scoring with 82 points (34 goals and 48 assists) when Wednesday’s action began.
This doubleheader has the potential to be a blowout and Clark knows starting goalie Drew Owsley will need to be at his best to give the Cougars a chance.
“We need him to be real good. I’m not going to candycoat or anything else,” Clark said. “He has to be excellent and we’ve got to go out and try and block some shots and help him out as well, and make it more of a team effort. But certainly, at the other end of the ice we have to be better at scoring some goals and making sure we get that job done there too.”
Clark confirmed during the Cougars’ press conference on Wednesday that Owsley has recovered from an lower body injury that kept him off the ice during a pair of home-ice losses to the Kelowna Rockets on the weekend. He listed three other previously injured players as probable returns for this evening: forwards Alex Forsberg, Jarrett Fontaine and Caleb Belter.
Among other injured Cougars, defenceman Dan Gibb is questionable for this weekend, while defencemen Reid Jackson and Shane Pilling won’t be in action against the Oil Kings. Forwards Brock Hirsche and John Odgers are recovering from shoulder injuries which may keep them out for the rest of the season.
In Saturday’s 4-1 defeat to the Rockets, the Cougars recorded a season low with 15 shots on the Rockets’ net. Clark hopes the return of their forwards will help generate more scoring chances.
“I think definitely Alex brings an element of offence. He’s got some great skills and stuff that we’ve missed since he’s been gone, and some creativity,” Clark said. “But it’s a tough year when you’re relying on some 16-year-olds to come in and help you, but that’s kind of the way it’s been.”
After meeting the Oil Kings, the Cougars will wrap up a five-game homestand on Wednesday evening against the Red Deer Rebels. Wednesday’s game will mark the return to Prince George for agitator Charles Inglis, traded to the Rebels in late December for Daulton Siwak in a swap of forwards.
“I’m looking for revenge I guess and I’m really excited to play some old friends and my former team,” Siwak said.