Cougars vs Blades
After opening up their Prairie trip with a win and an overtime loss, the Prince George Cougars now shift their focus to the middle portion of the trip. Tonight in Saskatoon the Cougars will battle the Blades for the first and only time of 2015-16. The Cougars have defeated the Blades in two straight meetings dating back to January 2014 and if they win tonight the Cougars would match their win total from a season ago in 18 fewer games. The task won’t be an easy one though as the Blades are a plucky bunch and are not about to lay down for the Cougars at home.
Bob Woods’ Saskatoon Blades come into tonight’s game with an overall record of 18-28-4-0. Their 40 points put them fifth in the East Division and 10th in the Eastern Division. They currently trail the eighth placed Edmonton Oil Kings by nine points for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and are 3-6-1-0 in their past 10 games. Their most recent game though was a 7-3 victory Saturday at home against Regina. The Blades home record is 8-15-2-0.
Who’s Up Front:
Offensively the Saskatoon Blades are led by 20-year-old forward Connor Gay. The Saskatoon product leads all Blades with 50 points in 48 games. Known more as a pass-first player, Gay picked up a goal and three assists on Saturday against the Pats. He finished the month of January with 13 points in 14 games and his leadership has no doubt been invaluable for a young Blades team that is on the rise out East. The Cougars will need to make sure they are aware when Gay is on the ice, because he’s the type of player that can sneak up on you with a big night if you give him too much space.
Who’s on D:
Originally selected second overall in the 2015 CHL Import Draft, rookie defenceman Libor Hajek has had an excellent first season in the WHL with the Saskatoon Blades. The product of the Czech Republic leads all Blades defencemen with three goals and 16 assists for 19 points. He’s also tabulated 50 penalty minutes and was recently ranked as the 27th top North American skater in Central Scouting’s Mid-Term rankings list. From all accounts Hajek is a real workhorse for the Blades and is going to log some big minutes in all situations tonight against a Cougars team that has scored the most goals out of any team in the Western Conference.
Who’s in Goal:
The Saskatoon Blades go to war most nights with the 18-year-old tandem of Brock Hamm and Evan Smith. Hamm has played the most games this season (37) of any Blades netminder and has a decent record of 13-16-3-0 with one shutout, a save percentage of .884 and a 3.81 goals-against-average. The numbers aren’t great, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not capable of stealing a game. His counterpart is 6’6” Evan Smith, a Nashville Predators draft pick who is 2-5 with a 4.01 goals-against-average and an .879 save percentage. Regardless of who gets the nod tonight for Saskatoon, they can both expect to be busy and challenged by the Cougars shooters. But with that said it’s important for the Cougars to take advantage of their chances when they arise and make life as tough as possible for the Blades goaltender.
Are the Blades the most skilled and dynamic team in the WHL? No. But do they possess a roster of fast and exciting young players that are prepared to work extremely hard on a nightly basis? Without question. A high scoring back-and-forth type of game doesn’t necessarily favor a team like the Blades in this instance. They are the type of team that plays much better when they have a lead and are protecting it, rather than trying to run and gun with teams when they’re down by a goal or two. The Cougars have struck first in both games so far on this road trip and that will be something that the Blades will try and turn around tonight at home.
PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS
Mark Holick’s Prince George Cougars come into tonight’s game with an overall record of 30-18-2-1. Their 63 points currently put them four points back of the Victoria Royals for second in the B.C. Division and eight points back of the first placed Kelowna Rockets. The Cougars are 5-4-1-0 in their past 10 games and are 1-0-1-0 so far in this six-game road trip that will also see them stop in Prince Albert, Brandon and Regina. The Cougars overall road record is 13-9-1-0.
Who’s Up Front:
Witala Watch is now in full effect. The next time the reigning WHL Player of the Week scores a goal he will become the all-time leading goal scorer in Prince George Cougars franchise history. What a milestone that would be for the local product of Prince George who has played his entire WHL career with the Cougars. Witala leads the Cougars in scoring this season with 31 goals and 26 assists for 57 points. He’s coming off a four point performance against the Warriors Saturday and overall he has six points in his past two games.
Who’s on D:
Tonight promises to be yet another special game for Cougars 18-year-old defenceman Tate Olson. The Vancouver Canucks prospect calls Saskatoon home and the only other time he played a game at ‘home’ he had a goal and two assists in a 10-6 Cougars victory two years ago. Olson continues to put forth terrific numbers in all areas of his game. His plus-minus rating of +22 remains tops on the entire team and his 37 points lead all Cougars defencemen in scoring. Olson’s steady two-way play has been one of the major reasons why the Cougars have improved to the degree that they have in 2015-16, and you can bet that he’s going to be very charged up for another opportunity tonight to strut his stuff in front of friends and family.
Who’s in Goal:
Nick McBride returned to the crease for the Cougars on Saturday in Moose Jaw and didn’t miss a beat in his first taste of action since January 3rd. McBride was focused form the get-go, made saves when he needed to and overall he provided the Cougars with a calming and confident presence between the pipes. He made 33 saves on the 35 shots he faced to improve his record as a Cougar to 10-4-0-1. He’ll be getting the nod again tonight and once again his familiarity to Saskatoon and the Eastern Conference can hopefully serve as a major positive tonight for the Cougars as they look for their first back-to-back victories since their home double-header sweep of Kamloops back on January 22nd and 23rd.
The biggest key tonight for the Cougars: Don’t change a thing. So far on the trip the Cougars have played two strong games and frankly could very easily be 2-0 as opposed to 1-0-1-0. Special teams will continue to play a big role in the Cougars success as the power play has now struck in seven consecutive games and is 10 for it’s last 29 overall. It will be important though for the Cougars to stay disciplined as they remain the most penalized team in the WHL by a very wide margin and the Blades are a team that can definitely make you pay if you give them too many power play opportunities. Discipline, defense and timely scoring are all major keys to success tonight for the Cougars as they look for win number 31 tonight.