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PREVIEW: Cougars at Moose Jaw Warriors

Tonight… The Prince George Cougars are in Moose Jaw to face the high-flying Warriors, as they wrap-up their six-game East Division road trip at Mosaic Place. The Cougars are looking for back-to-back wins, after their come from behind victory over the Brandon Wheat Kings Friday. Moose Jaw, who has a five-point lead atop of the East Division, is looking to end a two-game winless streak after losing to Medicine Hat and Red Deer in the last week. Tonight’s matchup is the first between these two teams since January 20th, of last season, when the Warriors scratched out a 2-1 win at the CN Centre. Tonight, is the Cougars first trip to Moose Jaw since January 30th, 2016, when they thumped the Warriors 6-2.

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The Last Game… The Cougars snapped their four-game winless streak last night in Brandon, coming from behind to beat the Wheat Kings 3-2. Ilijah Colina scored twice, Jared Bethune finished with a game-high three points and Isaiah DiLaura picked up his second career win, stopping 28 of 30 shots. Colina broke a 2-2 tie late in the third period, scoring his seventh goal of the season with just 2:23 left on the clock. Prince George trailed 1-0 after the first and 2-1 after the second, as they picked up just their third win of the season when trailing after 40-minutes. The top line of Bethune, Colina and Ethan Browne were terrific, combing for three goals and seven points; Browne had a pair of assists. Bethune has scored short-handed goals in back-to-back games and now has a team-best four short-handed goals.

Cougars Tracks… The Cougars are not only facing the top team in the WHL but the second-best team in the CHL National Top 10 rankings. It’s the second time this week they’re facing a nationally ranked team, as they faced the fifth-ranked Swift Current Broncos on Tuesday. Though it may look like a daunting challenge, the best teams in the WHL have brought out the best in the Cougars this season.

Prince George has already beaten Portland, a shutout win on the road, and Everett, Victoria, twice, Tri-City and have taken Kelowna to overtime, twice. This team has proven, more than once, they can run with the big dogs in the WHL.

Tonight provides plenty of challenges, as the Warriors have had the pole position pretty much all season and still only have nine regulation losses, despite losing two-straight. They have a juggernaut offence, led by Brayden Burke and Jayden Halbegwachs, who are first and fourth overall in league scoring. They also have a deep blue-line, with the likes of Kale Clague, Jet Woo and big Russian Oleg Sosunov. But, the Cats faced formidable line ups before and tonight is another welcome challenge.

Prince George picked up just their third win last night when trailing after 40-minutes, but it was a game they arguably shouldn’t have been trailing going into the third. Removing the first 10-mintues, you could argue the Cougars were the better of the two teams for 40, 50-minutes of Friday’s game. One could look at that 3-20-2-0 record when trailing after 40-minutes, and see it as a cause of concern. Or, you can look at last night’s third period rally as a big building block for a very young team; a sign of self belief.

Speaking of self belief, Isaiah DiLaura continues to take strides in goal. The 17-year-old picked up his second win of his young career Friday and now in his last two starts, he’s stopped 63 of 68 shots; that’s a .926 save percentage. DiLaura looked calm and most importantly confident in goal last night and that is infectious for his team in front of him. Especially with the lead late, DiLaura held down the fort and didn’t even give a hint that he was nervous in the final two-minutes. Do the Cougars ride the hot hand tonight?

The Cougars appear to have a top-line brewing, as Jared Bethune, Ethan Browne and Ilijah Colina combined for six even-strength points last night; Bethune had a short-handed goal. The three looked like they have formed some pretty good chemistry and they looked like a threat every time they crossed the Wheat Kings blue-line. Now, the Cougars can’t necessarily matchup against the Warriors big guns, but can these three find a way to be a difference tonight- again?

Prince George will again be without the services of Tavin Grant and Vladislav Mikhalchuk. Grant will sit out for the second-straight night as he is battling an illness and Mikhalchuk is still serving a yet-to-be-annoucned suspension, after his major penalty Wednesday against Regina. All other line up decisions will be announced closer to puck drop.

Scouting Report… Moose Jaw is very good. The Warriors still have a five-point lead on Swift Current for top spot in the division and in the Eastern Conference and they can be the first team to 40-wins in the WHL, if they can pick up a ‘W’ tonight.

The Warriors have the most prolific offence in the league, averaging a staggering 4.76 goals per-game; they’ve scored 23 more goals than the next closest team (Victoria). Leading the offensive assault, is Brayden Burke, who’s just three points away from the century mark (24-73-97), and Jayden Halbegwachs, who recently became the fastest player in franchise history to score 50 goals; he scored his 50th in his 47th game last Saturday in Regina. The threat doesn’t end with those two.

The Warriors have four other players averaging over a point per-game, including former Cougar Justin Almeida. Almeida is third in team scoring with 29 goals and 69 points in 51 games. He’s followed by Tanner Jeannot (33-32-65), Kale Clague (10-47-57) and Brett Howden (18-27-45). They Also have the likes of Ryan Peckford, who they picked up in a trade with Victoria.

Yes, the Warriors pushed their chip pile into the middle of the table, going all in at the WHL Trade Deadline, as they went out and got Kale Clague from the Brandon Wheat Kings. The price wasn’t cheap, as they had to send Luka Burzan, Chase Hartje and two first-round WHL Bantam Draft picks the other way. They also picked up power-forward Vince Loschiavo from Kootenay and defenceman Brandon Schuldhaus from Red Deer. Their window is now.

The Warriors are in the midst of a rare hiccup in their season, as they’ve dropped their last two in regulation, the first time they’ve suffered back-to-back regulation losses since October. Tonight is the middle game of a four-game home stand for Moose Jaw.

Keys… Prince George can’t fall into a trap of trading chances with the Warriors; they’re just too good. The Cougars need to focus on their structure, especially in their own end. They can’t afford to give the high-flying Warriors too much time and space. One key will be laying the body on the Warriors top players; make them pay a price when they cross over the blue-line. No one likes being hit, and repeatedly.

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