By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The Prince George Cougars appear to be serving notice that they no longer are the WHL’s 98-pound weakling.
That isn’t to mean they are Memorial Cup contenders, but the team that finished with the poorest record (12-56-1-3) in all of the 60-team CHL last season definitely has made some positive strides.
The Cougars improved to 5-4-0-1 by hanging an 8-1 licking on the host Kamloops Blazers on Saturday night. The Cougars, who didn’t win their fifth game last season until Dec. 4, did it by scoring five first-period goals and then staying out of trouble.
“We kept it simple and stayed on the right side of the puck,” said Prince George head coach Dean Clark, who is one victory away from No. 400, a mark reached by 11 WHL coaches before him. This was his 778th game as a WHL head coach.
Clark got big games from his best players, with defencemen Sena Acolatse putting up four points, right-winger Brett Connolly and centre Charles Inglis each getting two goals and an assist, and Slovakian defenceman Martin Marincin drawing an assist on each of the first three goals.
“Yeah, they were good,” Clark said, “but give credit to the goalie, too. He had to make some saves. On the power play in the first period, he came across the crease and got one with his pad . . . that was a big-time save.”
Goaltender James Priestner finished with 39 saves. Clark, then the Blazers’ GM, selected Priestner in the second round of the 2006 bantam draft. He quit on the Cougars a year ago, saying he had lost his desire to play, but reappeared at training camp.
Priestner and the Cougars had a tough day in Edmonton on Monday, blowing a 6-3 lead and losing 8-7 in overtime. But they beat the visiting Prince Albert Raiders 5-2 on Friday.
“He’s bounced back and had two real solid games,” Clark said.
The result is that the Cougars now are second in the B.C. Division, one point behind the first-place Vancouver Giants (5-5-1-1) and with two games in hand.
The Cougars also are 4-2-1-0 on the road. That may not seem like such a big deal until you realize that they finished last season 4-28-1-3 away from home.
“We have guys who played here last season and they know what we went through,” said Connolly, who has 15 points in 10 games after being limited to 16 games by hip problems last season. “Guys are more desperate this season. They want to have (more success) and it’s showing with how we’re playing.”
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