|Dean Clark, the head coach of the Prince George Cougars, chats with|
Brett Connolly (left) and Spencer Asuchak during a practice at Interior
Savings Centre in Kamloops on Thursday afternoon.
(Photo by Shane Kurki/Kamloops Daily News)
By GREGG DRINNANThe Prince George Cougars know they are faced with a big job if they are to advance to the second round of the WHL playoffs.
Daily News Sports Editor
Daily News Sports Editor
But, when you consider where they were a year ago, they really don't feel any job is too large to handle.
A year ago, the Cougars were on the outside looking in as the WHL playoffs began. In fact, they were so far outside that you had to wonder if they would ever get back inside. They had finished with a 12-56-4 record, the worst in the entire 60-team Canadian Hockey League. Basically, they were done before the season even started.
But, there they were on Thursday afternoon, dipsy-doodling and cavorting around the Interior Savings Centre ice surface, banging around some pucks and working up a sweat in preparation for a series-opening game tonight against the Rockets in Kelowna.
The best-of-seven series will continue in Kelowna on Saturday, before moving to Prince George for games Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Rockets (43-28-1) finished atop the B.C. Division, so go into the first round as the Western Conference's second seed. The Cougars improved their record to 33-35-4 and wound up seventh.
Kelowna won six of nine meetings this season — the Rockets were 4-1 at home - but the Cougars will gain confidence from having swept the visiting Rockets — 4-2 and 3-0 - on Feb. 4 and 5.
“We just played as a team,” offered Cougars captain Brett Connolly, looking back at that weekend. “We just kind of kept it simple and did all the little things and that really helped. We need to do that again to win this series.
“We know we can have success against them. The guys are pretty confident that if we do play that way we can have some success against them.”
Winger Spencer Asuchak, who is from Kamloops, also pointed to the Cougars having done a lot of little things correctly in sweeping the Rockets.
“We just stuck to our systems and played physical,” the 6-foot-4 Asuchak said. “We played our game and it paid off for us.”
Asuchak also said that the Cougars' specials teams “were awesome for us.”
The presence of Connolly is the biggest difference between this season and last for Prince George.
Plagued by hip problems last season, the Prince George native Last season, plagued in only 16 games, picking up 19 points. This season, in 59 games, he had 73 points, including 46 goals. He also had a team-high 15 power-play goals and knows that the Cougars are going to have to be good with the man advantage.
“It's been up and down. It could be better,” said Connolly, who was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the sixth overall selection in the NHL's 2010 draft. “We took a good step here in Kamloops and Prince George. We're looking to bring that into Kelowna. In order for us to be successful, it has got to be better, for sure.”
Last weekend, the Cougars were 4-for-9 on the power play and 6-for-6 on the penalty kill as they swept the Kamloops Blazers, winning 3-2 in a shootout in Kamloops and 5-1 at home.
“I think we played well (against Kamloops),” Connolly said. “Friday night was a very good game for us. It was kind of like a playoff game. We battled a little adversity and came back and got the job done.
“Yes, it was a good weekend for us.”
The question now, however, is whether this weekend will be good for them.
“I think it s a good matchup,” Asuchak said. “They're a good team over there. I'm excited to play. It's going to be a good series.”
The Rockets, who are the obvious favourites, will be without Evan Bloodoff, who drew a four-game suspension for a hit on Vancouver Giants defenceman Joel Rogers last weekend. Bloodoff normally patrols the left wing alongside centre Zach Franko, who put up 53 points in his freshman season, and 20-year-old Geordie Wudrick, who scored 43 goals.
A lot of the pre-series chatter has involved the Rockets without Bloodoff.
“They've got a good lineup,” Asuchak said. “Bloodoff is a physical guy who brings a lot of energy.”
Cougars head coach Dean Clark added: “He's a 20-year-old and has been there five years so has some experience. But they have lots of guys who can step in and compete.”
JUST NOTES: Interestingly, both head coaches played junior hockey in Kamloops, Clark with the Jr. Oilers/Blazers (1982-85) and Kelowna's Ryan Huska with the Blazers (1991-95). . . . The Cougars will open with Ty Rimmer, 18, in goal. He was 17-20-2, 3.29, .899 after being acquired from the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Rockets will counter with Adam Brown, 19. Brown finished 36-22-1, 2.59, .916.
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