David Soltes returned to the Prince George Cougars lineup just in the nick of time.
After missing 12 games with a leg injury, the 18-year-old import from the Czech Republic made the difference with a shot through the legs of Calgary goalie Chris Driedger that gave the Cougars a 4-3 shootout win over the Hitmen Friday at CN Centre.
Cougar centre Jordan Tkatch and Hitmen winger Radel Fazleev also scored in the shootout. Chase Witala led the Cougars with two goals and Ty Edmonds made 34 saves to preserve the victory, which improved the Cougars' record to 7-7-0-1. The Hitmen (9-3-1-2) earned their point with an impressive third-period rally.
As good as Chris Driedger was in goal for the Hitmen net the second period, Edmonds was the reason the Cougars were able to take it to the limit. He made at least a dozen quality saves to keep his team ahead until the late stages of the third period.
The Hitmen were relentless throughout the third period pressing for the equalizer and finally got what they were after on a power play with 3:33 left in regulation time. Right after Edmonds made his best stop of the game on his knees to rob Jesse Zgraggen, Alex Forsberg took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the Hitmen capitalized. Edmonds got a piece of he shot from Zane Jones from the face-of circle but the puck had enough momentum to trickle in.
Edmonds made three great stops in overtime to force it to a shootout. Shots were 39-34 in favour of the Hitmen, who mustered 24 shots after the second period and seven in OT.
The middle frame featured wide-open, pulse-quickening action, the majority of which took place in Calgary's defensive end. Early in the period, Troy Bourke generated two point-blank shots that were smothered by the pillows on Driedger's legs. The Cougar captain came close again on a wraparound during the game's first power play but Driedger was equal to the task.
Witala made it 3-1 with his eighth of the season midway through the second, cashing in a breakaway after he stripped the puck off Zgraggen. The Hitmen countered two minutes later, a deflected point shot that ticked off the stick of Brady Brassart. Driedger kept it close with at least five stellar saves as the Hitmen were outshot 20-5 in the period.
Thanks to a couple opportunistic offensive plays, solid goaltending and a favourable goalpost, the Cougars got off the early jump on the Eastern Conference leaders in the first of a two-game weekend set with the Hitmen.
Zach Pochiro was perfectly-positioned in the deep slot to accept a pass from behind the net from Cougar linemate Jansen Harkins, which opened the scoring 4:15 into the game. On the next shift, the Hitmen got the puck in close to the Cats net and Jones beat Edmonds with the shot but nailed the post dead on.
Calgary centre Terrell Draude tied it up at 6:08, getting his stick on a puck in the crease that was deflected before it landed at Edmonds' feet, the first WHL goal for the 16-year-old from Warman, Sask. Late in the period, Hitmen defenceman Kenton Helgeson coughed up the puck at the Calgary blueline, setting up a 2-on-1. Bourke dished it to Witala, the Cats' leading scorer, and he finished with a high wrist shot into the net over Driedger's shoulder. That extended Witala's goal-scoring streak to seven games. Soltes joined Bourke and Witala on the Cougars' top line.
LOOSE PUCKS: The same teams meet again tonight (7 p.m.)... Pochiro limped off the ice in the opening minute of overtime favouring his left knee after Bourke got tripped up in front of the Calgary net and fell into Pochiro's leg. Pochiro returned to take the Cougars first shootout attempt and was stuffed. Former Cougar goalie Mac Engel, 20, has been picked up the Regina Pats and played his first game in nearly seven months on Wednesday, a 3-1 loss to Prince Albert that snapped the Pats' six-game win streak.. Vancouver Giants goalie Jared Rathjen, a 19-year-old Prince George minor hockey product, suffered an injury in practice this week that will sideline him indefinitely. He was out of the Giants' lineup Wednesday when they beat the Hitmen 4-3 in OT in Vancouver.... The Everett Silvertips are without centre Jujhar Khaira, a former Prince George Spruce King, for their weekend games in Vancouver and Kamloops. Cougars scratches were D Zack Gonek, D Tanner Lishchynsky, D Martin Bobos and LW Jari Erricson (shoulder injury). The Hitmen did not dress RW Chase Lang, RW Cal Babych, and D Travis Sanheim.