A banged up, short staffed Prince George Cougars squad will host one of the hottest teams in the Western Hockey League in a pair of games this weekend.
The Kelowna Rockets (27-10-1-1) visit CN Centre tonight and Saturday (7 p.m.) for the first time since early October when both western conference teams were trying to find their identities. The Rockets found theirs and with a four-game overall win streak and a 15-game win streak on home ice are challenging the Kamloops Blazers, Portland Winterhawks and Spokane Chiefs for top spot in the west.
Since splitting a pair of games in Prince George, the Cougars (12-20-1-4) have dropped three games in Kelowna by scores of 3-0, 5-0 and 7-2. The only Cougar to beat Rockets goalies Jordan Cooke or Jackson Whistle was Alex Forsberg, who didn't return to Prince George after the holiday break and has requested a trade.
"They're a really good team, really structurally sound," said Cougars forward Caleb Belter. "Our team just has to come to the rink all night and play our game for 60 minutes. We need everyone to battle."
Unfortunately for the Cougars everyone won't be available to the team due to numerous injuries, illnesses and other commitments.
"We're as banged up as we've ever been right now," said Cougars coach Dean Clark. "Unfortunately we've had some pretty tough things happen to us but it's part of the game and we've got to get through it."
The most serious ailment among the Cats is 17-year-old defenceman Joseph Carvalho, who suffered a significant injury to his left knee last Sunday in Vancouver when he went knee on knee with the Giants Taylor Vickerman during the third period. Vickerman received a five-minute major and game misconduct and on Wednesday the WHL banned him for five additional games. The extent of Carvalho's injury won't be fully known until the swelling in his knee goes down and he can be reevaluated.
Other Cougars banged up include forward Jordan Tkatch (upper body), defenceman Raymond Grewal (upper body), defenceman Dallas Ehrhardt (upper body), forward Brett Roulston (upper body) and forward Jari Erricson (upper body). Grewal won't be available to the Cougars this weekend the other players are day to day. Erricson didn't travel with the Cougars on their road trip last weekend. Goalie Brett Zarowny (sick) may also not be healthy enough to serve as Mac Engel's backup after missing practice this week.
The Cougars will also be without defenceman Rinalds Rosinskis, who is in Ufa, Russia, playing for Latvia at the World Junior Championship while forward Carson Bolduc won't be back from Victoriaville, Quebec where he helped Team Pacific to a 7-6 win over Team Ontario on Thursday at the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge to finish in fifth place for a second consecutive year. Pacific posted a 3-1 preliminary record, with all three wins coming in overtime.
Prince George will only have four regular defencemen - Dan Gibb, Marc McNulty, Tanner Lishchynsky and Michael Mylchreest - available when they face the high-scoring Rockets, who are the second highest scoring team in the WHL with 164 goals. The Portland Winterhawks lead the league with 172 goals.
Clark said despite a tough schedule in the next week with home games with the Rockets and Kamloops Blazers and a trip to Portland in between there are no excuses for the Cougars not to qualify for the post-season.
"We've got ourselves in a position now that we've got to battle to get into the playoffs and we want to get there," he said. "We have to get to the playoffs."