Cougars Shoot for Third Straight Win in Prince Albert
Welcome to Day 8 of the Prince George Cougars longest road trip of their 2015-16 season. Today the Cougars find themselves in Prince Albert, SK for their annual meeting with the Prince Albert Raiders. So far, so good for the Cougars on their trip as they have gone 2-0-1-0 on the trip to this point and are coming off convincing victories against both Saskatoon (7-0 on Tuesday) and Moose Jaw (6-2 on Saturday). The Prince Albert Raiders find themselves in a fairly similar spot at the other side of the conference. They are 10 games over .500 and are still within striking distance of the first placed Brandon Wheat Kings.
PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS
Marc Hacscheid’s Prince Albert Raiders come into tonight’s game with an overall record of 27-17-5-1. Their 60 points currently put them second in the East Division and fifth overall in the Eastern Conference. They are 4-4-2-0 in their past 10 games and are coming off a 3-2 overtime loss from Sunday in Swift Current. The Raiders are 2-2 against the Cougars over the past four seasons and the road team has won all four of those games. The Raiders goal differential heading into tonight is a +3.
Who’s Up Front:
When it comes to consistency, few in the league can rival Prince Albert Raiders 19-year-old forward Reid Gardiner. The Humboldt, SK product had 10 goals and 19 points in 13 January games and has scored goals in back-to-back games heading into tonight’s contest. Gardiner’s 31 goals puts him in a tie for third in the WHL alongside forward Chase Witala. He’s the undisputed offensive leader of the team and the Cougars will need to be mindful of that fact tonight.
Who’s on D:
Defense is the definite strength of the Prince Albert Raiders. Their top six defencemen are as good as any collectively in the Eastern Conference because they can do a little bit of everything. Offensively Jesse Lees has chipped in with 16 goals and 40 points which is tops on the team. Only Calgary’s Jake Bean has scored more goals among defencemen in the WHL than Lees. On the defensive side, the Raiders lean heavily on the veteran duo of Brendan Guhle and Hunter Warner and don’t forget about Dalton Yorke who is one of the toughest customers in the entire WHL. The Cougars are going to have their work cut out for them tonight offensively and must be willing to the pay the price tonight in order to be successful offensively.
Who’s in Goal:
At the start of the season the Raiders had a real log jam between the pipes: Veteran Rylan Parenteau, Nick McBride and 16-year-old rookie and first round draft pick Ian Scott. Given their riches in goal the Raiders made the somewhat controversial decision to ride with Parenteau and Scott and Nick McBride then went home to Maple Ridge, B.C. to await a trade. Through 36 games this season Parenteau has put together a record of 15-11-4-1. He’s got three shutouts, a 3.01 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage. Scott has had a strong first season in the WHL with a record of 12-6-1-0 with a similar 3.10 goals-against-average and a save percentage of just under .900. Either guy has proven this season that they can help the Raiders win games, and you can debate the consequences of trading Nick McBride to Prince George all you like, but the fact remains that Parenteau and Scott were the two goalies chosen, and both have delivered when called upon. No official word yet on which guy will get the nod tonight for the Raiders.
Tonight’s game in Prince Albert will mark the final time ever that former Prince George Cougars forward Jordan Tkatch will get to face his former club. Over the course of a 318 game career (196 of which were spent in Prince George), Tkatch has provided some solid two-way play and character. This season Tkatch sits third in team scoring with 14 goals and 42 points. He’s the type of player that does a lot of the little things well, whether it’s winning a late faceoff, killing a penalty, blocking a shot or scoring a clutch goal. In the same way that Nick McBride is going to be stoked to face his former club at the other end, Jordan Tkatch is going to want to make a terrific last impression on the Cougars tonight in Prince Albert.
PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS
Mark Holick’s Prince George Cougars come into tonight’s game riding a two game winning streak. Their overall record now sits at 31-18-2-1. 31 wins this season already matches their total from a season ago and 20 games still remain. Their 65 points put them two points back of second in the B.C. Division and the Western Conference as a whole and puts them just two points shy of matching their point total from 2014-15. Their record over the past 10 games is 6-3-1-0 and they are 2-0 in each of their past two games in Prince Albert against the Raiders. A victory tonight would guarantee that the Cougars finish their Prairie road trip with a plus .500 record.
Who’s Up Front:
There has been plenty of discussion this season about the likes of Chase Witala, Jesse Gabrielle, Brad Morrison, etc. for good reason as they are great players. But one could easily make the argument that the most pleasant surprise of the 2015-16 season for the Cougars has been the steady play of 18-year-old forward Brogan O’Brien. The Prince George, B.C. product leads all Cougars rookies with 16 goals and 44 points, including a four performance a night ago in Saskatoon. Heading into tonight’s game with the Raiders O’Brien is riding a six game point streak and during that span he has five goals and seven assists for 12 points. Recently O’Brien cracked NHL Central Scouting’s Mid-Term Rankings List at number 94, and if he continues to play at this level his place on the list will surely higher when everything is all said and done. O’Brien has earned the trust of his coaches in all areas of the ice, and you can bet that he’ll be looking to maintain this scoring streak when he takes the ice tonight in Prince Albert.
Who’s on D:
Defensively the Cougars were ‘on point’ Tuesday in a 7-0 victory over Saskatoon. It’s the fifth time that the Cougars have shutout an opposing team this season and heading into action tonight the Cougars goal differential sits at a +36. Defensively success for the Cougars hasn’t been a result of anything fancy, but mainly just strong attention to detail and hard work. Tonight’s game won’t be easy by any stretch as the Raiders are a deeper team offensively compared to the Blades, but the Cougars surely are going to be up for the challenge. Tonight’s game should be a special one for Cougars captain Sam Ruopp as he plays at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert, the same rink where big brother Harrison Ruopp patrolled the Raiders blueline from 2009-2013.
Who’s in Goal:
One of the biggest storylines heading into tonight’s game centers around Cougars goaltender Nick McBride returning to Prince Albert for the first time since an October trade sent McBride to Prince George in exchange for a second round pick. McBride has won each of his past two starts for the Cougars and comes into tonight’s game with an impressive 11-4-0-1 record since arriving up North. It goes without staying that McBride is going to be jacked up for this one, and of course he’ll be hoping to stick it to his former team after they chose the other two goaltenders over him. But the obvious key tonight for McBride will be for him to manage his emotions and stick to his strengths. You can tell that McBride is on a groove right now, and so much of that is due to him being healthy and feeling more comfortable in his new surroundings. A big performance from McBride would be a big boost for a Cougars team that is looking to snag their second victory in as many days and their third straight win overall.
The message to the Cougars tonight remains the same. Stay disciplined, win the special teams war, and pay the price when necessary to make something happen positively for the team. The Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert is similar to the arena in Swift Current in that it’s smaller, louder and more intimate than some of the other larger rinks on the circuit which could provide it’s share of challenges for the Cougars who again aren’t very familiar with the arena, but the Cougars are not about excuses and they have every reason to feel confident and capable heading into tonight’s battle of the WHL ‘Princes’.