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Preview: Cougars vs. Thunderbirds (GM 46)

The Cougars (17-21-4-3) look for a split against the Thunderbirds (21-16-4-2) tonight at the CN Centre. Seattle spoiled the Cougars return home Tuesday, earning a 5-2 win, and in the process, snapped their three-game winless streak; The T-Birds have won the first three meetings against the Cougars.

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Prince George enters tonight’s game six points back of the Spokane Chiefs, for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Seattle leap-frogged the Chiefs into seventh with their win last night, as they’re now seven points ahead of the Cougars. One thing that’s working against the Cougars is the fact both Seattle and Spokane have played fewer games. The Cougars have 41 points in 45 games, whereas the T-Birds have 48 points in 43 games, and the Chiefs have 47 points in 44 games. Prince George needs to make the most of their next three home games, before they embark on six-game East Division road trip.

The season series has been one sided, on paper, as the T-Birds have won the first three meetings, with tonight being the season series finale. A role reversal from last season, where the Cougars won three of four against Seattle and their only blemish was a shootout loss. Seattle doesn’t mind the snow, as they’ve won five of their last seven regular season games in Prince George. Seattle has won 5-1, 5-3 and 5-2 in three games this year against the Cougars. Granted, the T-Birds have scored empty-net goals in each of the last two meetings.

Despite a significant roster turnover in the last few weeks, the Cougars do have some familiar faces heating up. Jared Bethune has points in eight of his last nine games (6-8-14), Josh Maser has points in five of his last seven (5-6-11) and Joel Lakusta is riding a four-game point streak (1-4-5). Lakusta also has points in seven of his last nine (1-10-11).

With the departure of both Josh Anderson and Dennis Cholowski from the blue-line, Lakusta has seen an increased role and has stepped up his offensive production, but he says the added workload doesn’t change anything for him, “I feel there’s more responsibility, but there’s no added pressure or nervousness.”

Seattle has a few players who are feeling it as well. Dillon Hamaliuk has a three-game point streak coming into tonight’s game (3-4-7). Turner Ottenbreit has one assist in each of his last three games, and Donovan Neuls has three goals and four points in his last two games. Neuls also has a team-best four goals and five points against the Cougars. Austin Strand had quite a night Tuesday on the blue-line, picking up a goal and an assist and was a game-high plus five. The 20-year-old defenceman signed with the LA Kings in November.

Tavin Grant has started the last two games for Prince George and though the loss certainly didn’t fall squarely on his shoulders, the Cougars may make a change in net. For the last handful of games, it seems to be a “win and you’re in,” approach, so tonight we may say Taylor Gauthier or Isaiah DiLaura.

It’s pretty cut and dry for Seattle, as their options are limited in goal with just two healthy bodies in the crease, and one being a 16-year-old AP. Prince George native Dorrin Luding was very sound in his first start since December 9th, stopping 28 of 30 shots last night; it was also his first win for Seattle. You can pretty much bet on Luding starting tonight.

Energy, or a lack of it, seemed to be a sore spot for the Cougars last night, so expect a much more hungrier team tonight, much like we saw last Saturday against Tri-City. A win tonight, coupled with a Spokane loss to Brandon, and the Cougars are just sitting four points out of a playoff spot.

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