After a tough week the Prince George Cougars rebounded with a couple solid outings against one of the Western Hockey League's top squads to earn three of a possible four points.
The Cougars (13-24-2-4) gave up the first goal early Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 2,160 fans at CN Centre to the visiting Kamloops Blazers but battled back to tie the game early in the third period, out chancing the Blazers (29-12-2-2) before falling 2-1 in overtime.
Cougars head coach Dean Clark said he liked the way his troops battled all weekend.
"We played a smarter game even tonight then we did [Friday night]," said Clark, referring to the Cats 1-0 win. "When you look at the four games that we played [this week] and who we played against and the amount of travel we did, to have the third period we did was huge for us. It should give us some confidence moving forward."
The Cougars were in Portland for a pair of midweek games against the red-hot Winterhawks, losing 6-4 and 3-0, before arriving back in Prince George on Thursday afternoon to prepare for the double dip with the Blazers. In addition the Cats players had to deal with the stress of the WHL trade deadline, welcoming a new player - forward Klarc Wilson - into the fold after a trade with the Edmonton Oil Kings and parting ways with another, forward Daulton Siwak, who chose to leave the team instead of joining his teammates on the trip to Portland.
Clark said the goaltending the Cougars received this week from both rookie Brett Zarowny and 19-year-old Mac Engel has gone a long way to increasing the confidence of the team as a whole.
"When you have good goaltending it gives the guys some confidence because you know if you make a mistake they're going to be back there to help us out," said Clark, crediting the team's defencemen for a couple of solid efforts.
"But our offence has to get going a little bit better and there are some things we're going to work on [this] week," he added.
The Cougars only managed 20 shots on Blazers goalie Cole Cheveldave in Friday's win and were out shot 34-27 in Saturday's 2-1 loss. Only in the sixth period of the weekend did the Cougars manage to put more shots on net than the Blazers, out shooting them 12-8.
Zarowny was stellar in a 44-save shutout Friday while Engel, after giving up a goal to Blazers captain Dylan Willick on the first shot Saturday, rebounded with some solid play to give his teammates a chance at the comeback.
Clark said normally he'd reward a goalie who earns a shutout with another start but the circumstances the Cougars faced over the past week caused him to stick to his original plan of playing both his goalies against the Blazers.
"[Zarowny's] coming off being sick and with all the travel and everything else I just didn't want to drain his tank," said Clark. "Mac played great in Portland too so I wasn't worried."
Zarowny has a 9-9 record in the Cats' net this season with three shutouts, while Engel is 4-15-1-4 - though the record isn't a completely accurate portrayal of Engel's play as he's been victimized by some miscues in front of him some nights.
"Every game I just show up with a clear frame of mind, going in believing that you're going to win and get the boys back on track," said Engel. "I let in that soft goal, the first one, and then picked it up from there and the guys battled really hard blocking shots."
After going 0 for 3 on their first power-play chances Saturday, the Cougars capitalized early in the third period when Colin Jacobs beat Cheveldave with his 14th goal of the season. Troy Bourke and Chase Witala drew the assists.
The Cougars had more chances to break the tie and won the special teams battle all weekend with the Blazers, killing off all five minor penalties they were assessed in both games while going 1 for 5 with the man advantage. The Cougars didn't have any power-play chances Friday.
Before Friday's 1-0 loss Cheveldave had a 9-0 record in games against Prince George.
The point they earned in the overtime loss Saturday, combined with losses by the Everett Silvertips (17-25-0-2) and Seattle Thunderbirds (16-23-2-1), moved the Cougars within five and three points of the seventh and eighth place teams in the battle for a playoff spot in the western conference. Seattle had dropped 13 straight games before playing in Tri City on Sunday night.
Note: Alex Forsberg was held off the score sheet in his first two games with the Humboldt Broncos in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League on the weekend.