The Cariboo Cougars need to go on a two-game winning streak to stay alive in the playoffs.
The Cougars couldn't overcome a bad start and dropped a 4-3 decision to the Okanagan Rockets in Game 1 of a best-of-three B.C. Hockey Major Midget League semifinal series Friday night at CN Centre. The Rockets stunned the Cats with two quick goals early in the first period and got the eventual winner from Spencer Hewson at 15:14 of the third. Hewson was in heavy traffic at the front of the Cariboo net and managed to deflect a puck that found its way to him after a wrist shot from the blueline.
The goal wasn't spectacular, but it counted. Now, the Cougars must find a way to win today's second game (1 p.m., CN Centre) to force a third and deciding contest on Sunday (10:15 a.m., also at CN Centre).
"We need everybody's 'A' game -- not one shift off," said Cougars head coach Trevor Sprague. "The leadership group has to make sure that everybody's ready to go and when we do have our chances to score, we have to score. We need to bury the puck."
The Cats were napping in the first four minutes of Friday's game and their slumber put them in the early hole. The Rockets went ahead 1-0 when Cariboo goaltender Nathan Warren allowed a juicy rebound off a soft shot from the blueline and Graham Millar jumped on it and snapped the puck into the back of the net. Just 69 seconds later, at the four-minute mark, an unchecked Josh Blanchard accepted a pass in the low slot and beat Warren cleanly.
The Cats nearly fell behind 3-0 after a giveaway in their own zone left Dennon Leibel with a free shot on goal. Fortunately for the home team, Warren knifed out his left pad and made the save.
The Cougars were also a little unlucky in the first period, as forward Liam Blackburn and defenceman Nick Headrick both clanked pucks off posts.
The strong start by the Rockets set the tone for the rest of the game, with the Cougars continually trying to play catch-up.
"To score the first goal is always a big boost," said Okanagan coach James Eccles. "And that's our game. We get a boost and we can use our speed and our skill and fly."
In the middle frame, the Cats battled back with two quick goals of their own. First, Logan Styler forced a turnover in the Rockets' zone and fed linemate Braiden Epp, who made no mistake with his shot. Then, 29 seconds later, Styler drew the Cougars even when he finished off a pass from Blackburn. Okanagan goalie Brenden Mills had no chance on the play.
The Rockets retook the lead at 3:55 of the third period and most of the credit went to Hewson, who powered his way through a couple Cariboo defenders and got a shot away on Warren. The puck sat in the crease and Justin Marreck of the Rockets was there to push it across the line.
Again, the Cougars fought back, this time on a goal by Blackburn at 12:27. But, the Rockets persevered and were rewarded with the winner by Hewson.
For the Cougars to extend the series, they'll have to get some offensive production from someone not named Styler, Epp or Blackburn. In the Cats' first three playoff games, that trio has accounted for 23 points.
"We can't just rely on one line to do the scoring," Sprague said. "We're not getting scoring from other lines and other players and that's the way it goes. Hopefully it will be different."
The Cougars are the No. 2 seed for playoffs and the Rockets are No. 3. The series winner will meet either the top-ranked Vancouver Northwest Giants or fifth-ranked Greater Vancouver Canadians in the best-of-three championship series.
The Giants and Canadians played the first game of their semifinal series Friday night in Burnaby.