All eyes are going to be on the City of Prince George this weekend as the Cougars and Blazers renew their historic WHL rivalry with a pair of televised games this weekend at the CN Centre. The Kamloops Blazers have earned at least a single point in 10 straight games while the Prince George Cougars are coming off of back-to-back victories on the road in Alberta and have won five straight home games heading into this weekend. Tonight at home the Cougars will look to do something that they haven’t been able to do yet this season, and that’s defeat the Blazers who are 3-0 against the Cougars up to this point in 2015-16. All three of the Blazers’ victories against Prince George have come in Kamloops, and all have been fairly lopsided. Only two points separate these two rivals which puts even more of an importance on the results this weekend. A playoff preview or a playoff-type atmosphere? That’s a safe bet for sure.
Don Hay’s Kamloops Blazers are coming into this game with an overall record of 10-8-3-0. Their 23 points have them ranked fourth in the B.C. Division and eighth in the Western Conference standings. Over their past 10 games the Blazers have compiled a record of 7-0-3-0 and as mentioned above, the Blazers are 3-0 this season against the Cougars having outscored them 20-4 in that span. Last season the Blazers went 3-4-0-1 against the Cougars but were winless in all four tries at the CN Centre.
Who’s Up Front:
With four goals and seven points in three games so far this season against the Cougars, 19-year-old forward Collin Shirley has been a real thorn in the Cougars side. The 19-year-old forward is tied for the team lead in scoring with 27 points and currently sits fifth overall in WHL goal scoring with 16 goals. He and 20-year-old Gage Quinney have formed a deadly one-two punch as Quinney also has 27 points. Keeping Shirley and Quinney off the score sheet is going to be paramount for the Cougars this weekend as they look to crack the Blazers for the first time this season.
Who’s on D:
Defensively the Kamloops Blazers are led by 17-year-old Dawson Davidson. The draft eligible Davidson hails from Moosomin, SK and leads all Blazers pivots with 16 points and is a +9. In three games this season against the Cougars, Davidson has a goal and four assists for five points. He’s especially dangerous on the power play and has also shown lately that he won’t shy away from any physical stuff. He along with veteran Ryan Rehill will likely see a bulk of the minutes for Kamloops against the top Cougars forwards.
Who’s in Goal:
On the surface, 18-year-old Connor Ingram’s numbers this season might be a tad misleading. His 8-5-3- record is complimented by a 3.24 goals-against-average and an .899 save percentage. Not bad by any stretch, but when it comes to games against the Cougars, Ingram has been dialed on. This season he’s 3-0 with a 1.33 goals-against-average and a .963 save percentage. In nine career starts against the Cougars, he’s a 6-2-0-1 with a 1.99 goals-against-average and a .943 save percentage. Yes all three of Kamloops’ victories against the Cougars this season have been convincing, but in all three of those games Ingram has made timely saves at the right times to keep the momentum on his team’s side. Barring any last minute setbacks, it’s a lock that Ingram will get his fourth straight start this season against the Cougars.
There should be no shortage of confidence in the Kamloops camp heading into this weekend. Three convincing victories already this season against the Cougars should help with that. But winning on the road is a different animal compared to winning at home, and now it’s the Blazers turn to step into hostile territory and try to steal some points on the road. No team has played fewer road games to start the season than Kamloops. In fact 10 of their last 12 games have been played at home, and the furthest they’ve travelled in that span of time was to Vancouver. With all of that in mind, life on the road might seem a tad foreign to the Blazers and it will be important for them to try and shake off the ‘road rust’ as quick as possible tonight.
PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS
Mark Holick’s Prince George Cougars are coming into this weekend feeling refreshed and rested after a busy stretch where 10 of their past 13 games have been played away from home. Despite some peaks and valleys over the course of their season the Cougars have earned points in 10 of their last 15 games, nine of which have been victories. Three of their five losses in that span have come against Kamloops. The Cougars are coming off back-to-back victories from last weekend against the Lethbridge Hurricanes and the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Cougars have also rattled off five straight victories on home ice dating back to the 20th of October against the Calgary Hitmen. Overall the Cougars are 12-9-1-0 and they currently hold a two point edge on Kamloops for third place in the B.C. Division. Tonight at home the Cougars look for their first victory of the season against the Blazers.
Who’s Up Front:
With goals in back-to-back games, 20-year-old forward Chase Witala is showing some definite signs of breaking out offensively. That speed and that blistering shot that we’ve come to expect from Witala over the years was on full display last weekend on the road. His nine goals on the season have him tied for second in team goal scoring alongside Brogan O’Brien and his 15 points put him third overall in team scoring. Witala and his linemates Brogan O’Brien and Jesse Gabrielle have been the Cougars most consistent line offensively as of late, and this weekend those three will need to be at their best if the Cougars hope to create a little more separation between themselves and their Kamloops rivals.
Who’s on D:
The Cougars blueline should be bolstered by the return of 17-year-old Josh Anderson who has missed the last six games due to an upper body injury. During his absence the Cougars went 4-2, but there’s no question that the Cougars are a better team and a more physical team when Anderson is in the lineup and playing a regular shift. Anderson won’t wow you offensively, but he’s a plus player and his 38 penalty minutes have him ranked second on the team in that category. Strong team defense has been a staple of all of the Cougars victories this season, and with Kamloops in town there will be a major onus placed on strong and structured defensively play here tonight. Now that the Cougars are at home they’ll also have the benefit of last change, which means that Mark Holick can match lines a little more effectively and place his preferred defensive pairings against the top Blazers forwards a little more easily.
Who’s in Goal:
Looking through the WHL it’s difficult to find a more consistent and statistically stronger goaltending tandem than the duo of Ty Edmonds and Nick McBride. Since joining the Cougars in a trade earlier this month, Nick McBride has been sensational posting a 4-2 record with a 2,47 goals-against-average and a .923 save percentage. McBride started all four of the games on the recent road trip due to Edmonds’ lower body injury and was named a game star in three of the four games. The good news: Ty Edmonds was back at practice this week and will dress tonight as McBride’s backup. Edmonds to his credit has a 2.21 goals-against-average with a 5-4-1-0 record and the second best goals-against-average in the WHL at .934 percent. With four games upcoming in their next six games, both goaltenders are in line to get some work, and this weekend goaltending should again take center stage. Tonight the Cougars will look to Nick McBride to provide the right answer for the Cougars as they seek their first victory of the season against the Blazers.
Through 180 minutes of hockey this season against the Kamloops Blazers the Prince George Cougars have never held a lead. Not for one second. The numbers don’t lie. When the Cougars score first they are 10-3, and when they lead after one period of play they are 10-1. The Cougars have shown all season long that when they hold a lead they are an awfully difficult team to come back against thanks in large part to their goaltending and their improved defensive play. A big key tonight for the Cougars will be to grab a lead and keep it. If the Cougars can strike first tonight it will go a long way towards helping them hand the Blazers their first loss of the season against the Cougars.