The last time the Prince George Cougars played at Western Financial Place, they lost to the Ice by a score of 7-4 and dipped to a 0.396 winning percentage, looking as if they were in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
That game took place on January 25, 2015. Now, more than a year and a half later, the Cougars are in a much different situation.
Their 5-2 win over the Ice on Wednesday put them at a WHL-best record of 12-2-1-0, and they are, so far, one of this year’s top teams in the entire CHL.
The Ice, on the other hand, continued their downward spiral with the loss, and remain in last place in the league, once again failing to pick up a win at home. They are now 0-7 in Cranbrook this season.
On this occasion, however, their loss was not for lack of trying.
“It [was] a tough one to lose, we were in the game from the get-go and I don’t think it was a matter of our work ethic,” said Ice forward Austin Wellsby after the game. “We did a good job of pushing the pace early, but throughout the game we just had a few costly turnovers and mishaps in our [defensive zone] that ended up costing us and that’s how we ended up with a loss.
The Ice competed well in the opening frame and came out with a 1-1 tie, thanks to Wellsby’s first goal of the season. He is now two-for-two in games against the Cougars held in Cranbrook. The last time the two teams met here, on January 25, 2015, Wellsby got the game winner on his first ever WHL goal.
Despite the strong start, a powerplay chance for Prince George deflated the Ice in the first half of the second period.
A little over five minutes into the frame, Ryan Pouliot was called for high-sticking and let the Cougars lethal man advantage get a go-ahead marker. The goal was scored by Jansen Harkins, who buried a perfect feed from Kootenay forward Dylan Stewart who errantly threw the puck right on his opponent’s stick in an attempt to alleviate the danger they were facing.
The Cougars then furthered their lead off an odd-man rush caused by an offensive zone pinch-attempt by Cale Fleury. Brogan O’Brien made no mistake on the shot and left the Ice down a pair at the midway point, with his second goal of the night.
The Ice rallied however, quickly making sure they headed into the break with a tight game on their hands.
With under four minutes left in the period, Ryan Pouliot managed to spring Matt Alfaro on a breakaway with a hard cross-ice pass. A trailing Cougars defenseman caused Alfaro to slow up and with Noah Philp flying to the net, he threw it on goal.
While the Cougars goalie got a piece of Alfaro’s shot, the puck fluttered in the air and Philp batted it in perfectly to narrow the score to 3-2. Following the goal, Kootenay continued to buzz with their top players lining up together, but despite a very close chance for Zak Zborosky, the Ice headed into the second down one.
They didn’t come out of the second period unscathed, though. Kaeden Taphorn, who only recently returned to the lineup after a facial-injury, left the game clutching his arm and did not return.
“[What happened to Taphorn] is just real unfortunate circumstance, he’s had shoulder problems and you feel awful for the kid,” coach Luke Pierce said on the rookie winger. “He’s been such a great kid for us and we’ll miss his presence in our lineup. We’ll wait and see a little more, but it doesn’t look good at this point and all we can do is really hope the best for him.”
Two quick calls against Prince George within the first 30 seconds of the third period, gave the Ice a perfect opportunity to get back in the game, but despite strong play from their top unit they couldn’t capitalize. Pierce said it was, unfortunately, the turning point of the evening.
“[We had] almost a full two minutes of 5-on-3… that changes the dynamic of the game and that [was] the difference tonight,” he said. “They didn’t have one first year player in their lineup today, [they’re] a good hockey team and they capitalized on our mistakes and we didn’t [do the same to them].”
Following the Ice’s blown power play opportunity, Harkins put in his second goal of the night. The Cougars leading scorer, Brad Morrison, then sealed their victory with an empty-net goal in the last two minutes.
Despite the disappointing ending, Pierce was encouraged by his team’s play — especially their physicality and desire to compete.
“[I] hope they’re getting the message [about making physical sacrifices], that’s why getting a win is so important, so the messages get reinforced,” he said. “But we have to be mature enough to realize that there were a lot of good things that we did and it’s a hockey game that we could have and should have won.
“With time and a little more confidence, I think [we’ll] win more of those things. I’ll take that [though] because the mistakes that we made are fixable. I can’t fix desire and heart and effort, so as long as we don’t relapse in that department, I think things will start looking up.
Wellsby further shed light onto the team’s mission to be physical.
“Our goal, as a team, was to get four hits per player and I think we did a pretty good job of that,” Wellsby said. “Prince George is known as a physical team, probably one of the most physical teams in the league and if we wanted to have any chance of [competing] we had to push them physically and honestly, I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
Now, the team has a quick day of rest and practice before they face the Brandon Wheat Kings — another challenging opponent — for the first of a two-game series at home, on Friday night.
“We get another real strong team which is hopefully a good thing for us because we’re up at that pace right now,” Pierce said on the quick turnaround. “[If we] bring the same effort, clean up some mistakes and capitalize on some of those chances – and improve our execution – I think you’ve got a good recipe.”