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Preview: Cougars at Chiefs (GM #43)

The Prince George Cougars (16-19-4-3) start their two-game US Division road trip tonight against the Spokane Chiefs (21-18-1-2). The Cougars are coming off a 4-3 overtime win over the Vancouver Giants on Wednesday, part of a split in a doubleheader against their BC Division rivals. Spokane lost 7-4 Wednesday in Kelowna and have dropped their last three.

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it has been and will continue to be a busy stretch for the Cougars, as this is their third game in four nights and their fifth game in the past seven days; throw in yesterday’s travel and it can be taxing. However, the Cougars have been up to the challenge, as they’re 2-1-0-1 in their last four and have points in all but two of their last eight games. They find themselves knocking on the door when it comes to a playoff spot too, as they’re just six points out of the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference, which is currently occupied by tonight’s opponent. A win tonight and the Cougars are just four points out with another big games tomorrow in Tri-City.

The newest member of the Cougars, Ilijah Colina, met his new teammates Thursday at the team’s hotel and will make his debut tonight; he will wear number 20. Going by Friday’s morning skate, Colin will line-up with Jared Bethune and possibly Josh Maser on the Cougars’ top-line. Colina isn’t a total stranger to his new teammates, as the North Delta, BC, product is quite familiar with a few of the Cougars’ who hail from the Lower Mainland. In 37 games with the Portland Winterhawks this season, he had three goals and 15 points.

After the flurry of moves by the Cougars leading up to and on WHL Trade Deadline day, they now have the second-youngest roster in the WHL, averaging out to 17.69 years-old; Edmonton’s is 17.52. They currently have 14 players who are 17-years-old or younger, four of which are 16. Despite all that inexperience, we’ve seen a very determined effort from this club in the last handful of games, especially in their last two against Vancouver. They’re young, they’re going to make mistakes, but one thing you have to admire is their work ethic and as Head Coach Richard Matvichuk preaches, “Will before skill.” They outworked the Giants on Wednesday, a team that was 16 points ahead of them in the BC Division standings, and  as the coaches have stated numerous times, when the Cougars play the right way, within their structure, they can play with anyone in the WHL.

Speaking of the Giants, how about that performance by Josh Maser Wednesday? Maser scored all four of the Cougars goals in the win, the first Cougar do that in a game in nearly 18 years.

Oddly enough, it was the second time this season between the Cougars and Giants, there was players on both sides recording a hat-trick. On December 30th, Kody McDonald and Ty Ronning had hat-tricks, in the Cougars 7-6 overtime win; McDonald scored the game-winner.

Maser hit the 20-goal plateau with his overtime-winner Wednesday, and is on pace for a 35-goal season if he can keep it up. Quite the sophomore season for Maser, who had three goals in 24-games last season split between Prince George and Prince Albert.

Spokane has dropped three straight, including both games on a BC Division road trip earlier this week, losing 7-4 Wednesday in Kelowna and 2-1 in Kamloops on Tuesday; they also lost 4-1 in Seattle last Saturday. Tonight is the start of a five-game home stand at Spokane Arena. Everett, Brandon, Tri-City and Swift Current all visit over the next 12 days.

Kailer Yamamoto, who won bronze with Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo, New York, hasn’t played since returning to the Chiefs but likely be in the line up tonight. Yamamoto was scratched in the Chiefs last two games, likely resting after the grind of the World Junior tournament. The Edmonton Oilers property started the season in the NHL and since being returned, he’s picked up 12 points (2-10-12) in 13-games; he hasn’t played with the Chiefs since December 12th.

20-year-old Hudson Elynuik leads the Chiefs in scoring with 21 goals and 56 points in 42-games. He’s followed by Jaret Anderson-Dolan, the LA Kings prospect, who has 23 goals and 47 points in 40 games. Rounding out the top five is Ty Smith (6-36-42), Riley Woods (18-19-37) and Zach Fischer (19-13-32). Smith, who’s just 17, is fifth in the WHL in scoring by defenceman and is third in assists. The Chiefs can put the puck in the net, as their eighth in the WHL in goals with 160, which is fourth-best in the West.

How competitive is the US Division? The Chiefs are last with 21 wins and 45 points, a .536 winning percentage but just seven points out of first place. To put it into perspective, their 45 points would have them in second place in the Central Division. They still have a very realistic opportunity to finish in the three of the division and right now hold down a wildcard spot. In all likelihood, at least four of the five US based teams will make the WHL playoffs. Who slots where, is the big question.

The Chiefs, like the Cougars, have three goalies on their roster, as they acquired Bailey Brkin from the Kootenay ICE before the WHL Trade Deadline, as he joins Dawson Weatherhill and Donovan Buskey in the crease. Weatherhill and Buskey had basically split the goaltending duties leading up to the acquisition of Brkin, as Weatherhill played in 26 games and Buskey 18; both have similar numbers too.

Quietly (?), Jared Bethune has put together a six-game point streak, scoring five goals in his last six and has really taken over the offensive responsibilities in the absence of Kody McDonald and Dennis Cholowski. Bethune leads the team in assists (26) and points (40) and is very close to a point per-game average.

Tonight is the third of four meetings between the Cougars and Chiefs and first since the opening weekend of the regular season. Spokane swept a doubleheader in Prince George back on September 22nd and 23rd, winning 5-2 and 5-1. They meet again, in Spokane, on February 23rd.

Head-to-Head

Cougars                                       Chiefs

Jared Bethune 1-0-1 Hudson Elynuik 2-2-4
Aaron Boyd 0-1-1 Ty Smith 1-3-4
Josh Curtis 0-1-1 Riley Woods 1-3-4
Joel Lakusta 0-1-1 Riley McKay 0-2-2
Jackson Leppard 0-1-1 Dawson Weatherhill 0-2-2
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