A Herculean task awaits the Prince George Cougars this weekend.
The star-studded lineup of the Canadian Hockey League's top team, the Portland Winterhawks, will grace Prince George with their presence on the ice at CN Centre in a pair of Western Hockey League games, giving hockey fans an opportunity to witness the skill sets of players like St. Louis Blues prospect Ty Rattie, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Derrick Pouliot and the projected No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL entry draft, Seth Jones.
The Winterhawks are an impressive 49-9-1-2 this season while the Cougars are chasing a playoff spot in the western conference with a paltry 18-34-2-6 record. The Cougars are three points behind the Everett Silverips (21-34-1-4) for the eighth, and final, playoff spot. In their last 10 games the Silvertips are 0-8-0-2. In the same time span the Cougars are 3-5-0-2.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Winterhawks will set a new franchise record for road wins with their next victory. A 3-0 shutout in Kamloops on Wednesday allowed Portland to tie its all-time high for road wins at 24.
Cougars head coach Mark Holick said his team needs to start strong against the Winterhawks.
"It's a David and Goliath type match up right now," said Holick. "They have real good forwards and lots of depth at every position. Their goaltending is strong. They've got two guys with 100 points already. They're going to get chances we've just got to try and limit them and keep them, as best we can, to the outside.
Portland centres Brendan Leipsic and Nicolas Petan lead the WHL in scoring with 105 and 102 points, respectively. In fact their are eight Winterhawks with more points than the Cougars top two scorers, Colin Jacobs (43 points) and Troy Bourke (40).
Mac Engel will receive his 10th consecutive start in the Cougars' net tonight (7 p.m.) and will need to be sharp if the Cats are going to pull off the win.
There was some semi-good news for the Cougars when they returned from their four-game road trip in Alberta on the goaltending front, as Brett Zarowny had resumed skating after struggling with post-concussion syndrome since Jan. 30 when he took a hit to the head during a game in Tri City.
"I don't know if he'll be available for the weekend," said Holick. "He's still got a few more hurdles to get through until he's cleared, but even if he's cleared Thursday he's probably not going to be available for the weekend."
Matt Kustra, a 15-year-old Cougars' bantam draft pick, signed a WHL contract Thursday with the Cougars will likely backup Engel for the fourth straight game tonight.
Notes: The Cougars are offering fans two-for-one tickets to Saturday's game, 7 p.m., against the Winterhawks. The team was included in the TV program Marketplace's study on sodium intake in athletes and a crew will be in Prince George filming game footage for the March 8 episode.