by JIM SWANSON
Citizen Sports Editor
The collective upper lip as stiff as can be, the Prince George Cougars are outwardly refusing to call it a season.
The Cougars are clinging to playoff hopes with six regular season games to play - seven dusty points back of the Kamloops Blazers, who have four games remaining.
Given the schedules of the two teams this weekend, the Cougars will either be eliminated or very much in the hunt after games are played out tonight and Saturday. The Cougars host the Vancouver Giants for a pair of home games, while the Blazers start a home-and-home series against the league-leading Kelowna Rockets tonight in Kamloops.
Add in the fact it's been more than a month since the Cougars won two games in a row - Jan. 7-8, against Vancouver and Moose Jaw - and there's a lot of faith and hope in play for Prince George.
"I don't know if we have to win six in a row, but we have to win a minimum of four and two of those have to be the final weekend against Kamloops," said Cougars head coach Lane Lambert, whose team is 14 games under .500 after being one game shy of the break-even mark the morning of Dec. 18 (15-16-3-1), six points ahead of the Blazers at that point.
"We're staying positive. Until the fat lady sings we'll keep swinging."
Tuesday was a tough night for the Cougars, watching the Internet for results of the game between Kamloops and Tri-City. The Cats hoped for help from the Americans, who held a 3-2 lead after 40 minutes, but the Blazers expanded their lead to seven points by scoring two unanswered goals in the third.
"I looked at it and it was disappointing, but there's not much we can do," said captain Myles Zimmer.
"We can't just expect Kamloops to lose all their games, we have to get some points ourselves. We're going to have to figure out how to string some wins together, we haven't done that all year, but that still comes one game at a time. It would be nice to start against Vancouver.
"This is hard, because this is my third year being in this kind of battle late in the season, and it's gettin monotonous. It's been that way all year, and it gets frustrating and hard sometimes being behind the eight-ball like we've been. But Lane always says, if you can't get up for these games then you're in the wrong business, and now is the time for the players to prove it.
Lambert was equally philosophical.
"When I looked at (Kamloops') schedule, and compared it to our schedule, I thought that game against Tri-City was one (the Blazers) could win, so it doesn't change anything," said Lambert.
"We've got to take care of our busines, it's that simple."
If there is one hope for the weekend, it lies in what should be a difference in motivation factors between the Cougars and Giants.
"Vancouver is playing to get rolling into the playoffs, and they shouldn't be as desperate as we are," said Cougars assistant coach Stew Malgunas.
"We have a healthy squad now, basically for the first time all year, and I like the way we've been practicing this week."
n The Cougars have had bantam draft pick Andrew Cherniwchan of Hinton in to practice since Wednesday. Cherniwchan completed his midget season, and is unlikely to see game time with the Cats scrapping for the playoff spot. Listed at 5-11 and 160 pounds when he was chosen in the third round (50th overall) in the 2004 draft, Cherniwchan was compared to ex-Cougar Justin Cox in skill and style.
by JIM SWANSON
Citizen Sports Editor
For those who haven't met Myles Zimmer and are interested to know his personality, think one part politeness and one part hell-fire intensity.
The captain of the Prince George Cougars got here at the tail end of the days when every home game was a potential sellout. Now, with an average attendance of 3,152 and a top crowd this season of 4,560, Zimmer laments the fact the once-feared Multiplex is now just another place for road teams to play.
And when it comes to the geographical elements that force the Cougars to play home double-headers, not having that seventh man gives the visitors an extra inch of height and 10-15 additional pounds of courage.
"If we had more people in the stands it might be a different situation to some degree, because the other team might not want to come back for the second one," said Zimmer.
"Our rink isn't an intimidating place to play, I don't think, and we can take the blame for that ourselves. It would be nice to have more people there to cheer when we score or when we have a big hit.
"We're probably the only team that plays double-headers, and I think that's bogus. It's tough to play against the same team twice in two nights, even in your own barn. It usually ends up being a split."
Wednesday's practice was ear-splitting - not because of the hooting and hollering, but because of the sound system. Assistant coach Stew Malgunas selected the music - 'pure 80's style hair metal - that resonated through the empty Multiplex, meant to change the atmosphere for practice and give an added jolt of energy to the workout.
"Caught me - I picked the music," laughed Malgunas, adding that the tunes might very well be from the same mix whenever he gets together with old hockey buddies like Turner Stevenson.
"That was music from the glory days."
It's just another example of the coaches trying everything they can to find the right buttons to push. For instance, in Saturday's win over Spokane, the team got completely undressed during the first intermission then put the gear on again to try and avoid another one of the second-period distasters that has befallen the club this season. It worked, the Cougars outscored Spokane 1-0 in the period.
PRINCE GEORGE - The Cougars are coming off a 3-1 win Saturday over Spokane, which moved them within five points of the Kamloops Blazers for fourth in the B.C. Division. That gap expanded to seven points when Kamloops beat Tri-City on Tuesday... The Cougars have six games remaining, including the next three against the Giants. After this weekend double-dip, the two teams meet again Tuesday at Pacific Coliseum... Kamloops has four games left, including a home-and-home with Kelowna this weekend that starts tonight in Kamloops... It was said by just about everyone going into this season that as Dustin Byfuglien goes, so will this team. Well, when the big defenceman, the team leader in scoring with 53 points, scores a goal, the Cougars are 9-4-1-1; when he gets a point, 16-16-1-1. When his 'A' game isn't apparent on the scoresheet, or when he's been hurt or suspended, P.G.'s record is 8-22-2-0... Colin Patterson has a team-high 24 goals... The Cougars are 16-14-2-0 at home, and haven't won two games in a row since Jan. 7-8, against Vancouver and Moose Jaw, respectively. For a team that may need to run the table in the final six games to make the playoffs, the longest winning streak of the season is three-in-a-row, and that started late in November and ended on Dec.1... The Cats have the second-worst power play in the league at 12.1 per cent... Expect to see Brett Parker back in the lineup after he was a healthy scratch, for the first time in his career, on Saturday... The only injured player is Jordy Johnson, who has gone home to Winnipeg to take care of a wrist problem... The Cougars are planning to pick up defenceman Ryan Kerr, last spring's top bantam pick, when they are in Vancouver next week. Don't expect Kerr to add to his games played, currently at three.
VANCOUVER - The Giants can't improve or hurt their final standing in their remaining xx games. Vancouver is destined to finish third in the B.C. Division... The Giants are 4-1-0-0 against the Cougars this year, with one of those victories in overtime. This is the first meeting between the teams since Jan. 11, the day after the trade deadline... For all the talent on the roster, the Giants' power play operates at just 15.9 per cent, 14th in the league. On the road, the Giants struggle at 13.3 per cent... Despite leaving for nearly a month to play for the Czech Republic at the world juniors, goaltender Marek Schwarz has played in 52 games. The first-round NHL pick has a 2.68 average. .899 save percentage, and two shutouts to go along with a 23-23-4 record... The last time we saw Gilbert Brule, he was leading the WHL in scoring. He is now fifth with 79 points, 24 back of league-leader Eric Fehr of Brandon... Adam Courchaine is tied for ninth in scoring with 71 points, including a team-high 46 assists... The Giants added ex-Kamloops winger Cam Cunning at the trade deadline. Cunning has two goals in 25 games for the Giants after scoring 14 times in 39 games for Kamloops.