Thursday, February 23, 2006
Hawks rule the roost in Cats' den
by JIM SWANSON Citizen Sports Editor
It certainly didn't take 61 games to come to this painfully obvious conclusion, but it was there on clear display Wednesday.
In order to win hockey games, the Prince George Cougars need to play with a never-ending sense of urgency, and get offensive production from Eric Hunter and Nick Drazenovic.
There wasn't enough of either.
The Cougars (31-26-0-4), now slotted into the fifth-and-final spot in the B.C. Division standings — a non-playoff spot — failed to garner valuable points in a 3-2 loss to the visiting Portland Winter Hawks.
This Winter Hawks team, it should be noted, came into this one with a 2-14-2-2 record in its last 20 games. Oh, and had also lost 12 in a row on the road. That streak is dead and buried.
"We've struggled on the road — well, we've struggled everywhere the last few months, so it was a much-needed win," said Portland head coach Mike Williamson.
True to WHL form, the Cougars were not themselves in the first period of this game. Why is that, you ask? Because history shows, time after time, that league teams struggle in their first game home after a long road trip. The Cats, who have dropped seven of the last eight, were still smarting from a 1-4-0-1 trip through Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
"It wasn't picture perfect, and we were probably a little fortunate that they were slow out of the gate, that first period after a long road trip," said Williamson. "They carried the play after that and we got some big saves from our goalie."
The Cougars remain one point back of Kamloops for the final playoff spot in the B.C. Division, and one game in hand was burned. The Blazers have played two more games than the Cougars, and a big weekend looms with Kamloops trekking north for two games March 3-4, two of three head-to-head contests remaining. Those games will likely decide this race.
Portland extended its gap over Spokane for the final U.S. spot to three points.
The main reason Wednesday it was a point-less result for Prince George was, again, a lack of touch around the net. The 32 shots, particularly the quality of a good portion, should've been enough to manage a win.
"The fact this was a real big game for us, maybe the guys were nervous knowing we're trying to turn the corner into must-win mode," said Cougars head coach Mike Vandekamp, speaking about the slow start.
"Guys were afraid to make mistakes, but once we got going, we played well."
For a team needing to get off to a blazing start, it took the Cougars 12 minutes to register a shot on Portland netminder Kurtis Mucha. And that came after the Hawks had put the first number on the board, courtesy a nice pass from Stan Balan, who was behind the net, to an unchecked Nick Hotson.
The Cougars outshot the Hawks badly from there — 29-16 in the final 40 minutes — but Mucha used every part of his body it seemed, including his head on one third-period attempt, to thwart the offensively-challenged Cats.
The first Prince George goal was 125 minutes 23 seconds in the making, dating back to the second period of Friday's loss in Moose Jaw. It took extra effort to complete it, a point that must be driven home. A crisp passing play developed between Nick Drazenovic and Eric Hunter, the latter banging in his own rebound for his 33rd of the season.
When Cougars goaltender Scott Bowles made a fantastic save on Jannik Hansen in the second, stuffing a 2-on-1, the home club appeared to have all the momentum. But bounces and a mistake ate up the Cats in the third period.
Portland defenceman Michael Funk's point shot with 14:30 to play took at least two different turns before sliding past Bowles. Then, exactly two minutes later, Drazenovic lost the puck in the offensive zone, Devin Featherstone couldn't beat Hansen to it at the blueline, and Jon Bubnick got control and sped away from Cougars defenceman Ty Wishart in a mismatch. Bowles couldn't stop the breakaway deke.
Cody McMullin drew Prince George within one goal on a rifle shot over Mucha's glove shoulder, but no other scoring followed.
"(Portland) got shots through, but we did too — I saw theirs go in, and ours stay out," said Cougars head coach Mike Vandekamp.
"They got a greasy goal, we didn't. Pucks aren't bouncing in for us right now. Nobody died tonight, we just have to keep banging away at these big games and get points where we can. Finish is finish, you can't teach finish in February. If you keep shooting the puck and going to the net, eventually the puck is going to go in."
KITTY LITTER: Featherstone was given assists on both Prince George goals, though it looked like McMullin deserved the second helper on the Hunter goal... Both teams had two power-play chances. Portland had the lone power-play goal. Referee Pat Smith did a commendable job largely because he let the teams play hockey and shied away from calling marginal infractions, rare in this day and age in the WHL... Import winger Fred Wikner was a healthy scratch for the Cats. Andy Rogers (ankle), Jesse Dudas (leg) and Prab Rai (healthy) were the others not in the lineup... Announced attendance was a paltry 2,571. There weren't that many souls in the building, you can be sure. Most got a chuckle at the new mohawk hairdos of Cougars players, exposed when the helmets came off for the anthems. "It's good people got a chance to laugh — maybe even funnier when (Jared) Walker started to skate away after the American anthem," said Vandekamp... The Cougars host Vancouver this weekend for a doubleheader, games Friday and Saturday at CN Centre. The Giants are first overall in the WHL standings with 90 points.
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