After six losses to the high and mighty Kelowna Rockets, the top-ranked major junior hockey team in the country, the Prince George Cougars finally slayed the dragon.
Rookie centre Jansen Harkins lifted a backhander over Rockets goalie Jordon Cooke 8:26 into third period and the Cougars hung to beat their WHL rivals 2-1 Saturday night at CN Centre.
Ty Edmonds made it all possible, blocking 42 of 43 shots from the guys sporting Ogopogo on their jerseys. With his mom Kim from Winnipeg in the building watching on parent/billet night, Edmonds turned in one of his most impressive games of the season.
He bailed his team out with at least six holy-cow saves in the opening period as the Rockets built a 14-3 shot advantage in the first period. Two of those close chances came off the stick of Rockets centre Rourke Chartier, a Cat-killer lately.
The 17-year-old goalie was sharp when he had to be in the second period and stood up to a dangerous Kelowna power play midway through the third. Not long after that he came up with his best save of the game, kicking out his leg to block a Tyrell Goulbourne point-blank bullet.
"It felt good, I just went out there and played the way I know I could," said Edmonds. "It's unfortunate they got one past me but we ended up winning the game and that's all that matters. I was happy with my performance.
"We've played Kelowna good all season but it's unfortunate we haven't got the wins so it was good to finally beat them. We're playing great hockey, the D is playing good and we can score, we just haven't been getting the wins we deserve."
Badly outplayed in the opening 10 minutes, the Cougars needed a spark to ignite their offence and Zach Gonek seemed to provide that -- with his fists. Rockets defenceman Dalton Yorke was the instigator of a centre-ice fight and Gonek handled himself well in what ended up a draw. For whatever reason, that seemed to energize the Cougars. They started winning puck battles and found time and space to set up in the Kelowna end.
"Our guys had some pushback tonight and I liked the way they stayed on pucks with real strong sticks and at the end of the day we deserved it," said Cougars head coach Mark Holick.
"Zach's been a physical presence and that's a hard job for 17-year-old kid to do but he seems to have fallen into that and he's an important part of our group,and that gave us some life. Ty was real good and Klarc Wilson was a complete 180 from last night and was a force for us."
After forcing goalie Jordon Cooke into a tough save off a deflection, Marc McNulty cruised in from his point position and unloaded a shot-pass into the slot that tipped into the net off Wilson's stick blade, the only goal of the first period.
Both goalies were tested in an even second period and the Rockets made good on one of those opportunities, tying it just before the intermission. McNulty put the puck around the Kelowna net to an open wing and the Rockets used unforced turnover to set up a fast break. Nick Merkley broke through at full flight and laid a backhand pass onto the stick of Chartier, who tapped it high over Edmonds' shoulder.
The winner from Harkins came with the teams playing 4-on-4 after smart play from his 20-year-old linemate Todd Fiddler, who knocked puck away from Chartier and walked the blueline two avoid his check and set up Harkins behind enemy lines. With nobody around him, the 16-year-old Harkins broke in on Cooke and beat him for his 10th goal of the season, the second gamewinner of his young WHL career.
"That's the biggest one for me with the Cougars -- to beat the No. 1 team in the nation like that in the style we did is pretty huge," said Harkins.
Shots were 43-27 in favour of Kelowna. Once they got their lead, the Cougars didn't try anything too fancy and with Edmonds on his game, they locked up a critical two points.
"When Ty's playing like that he's lights-out," said Wilson. "Tonight he was like the goalie we saw in October and you can tell he was on his game and his confidence is high. When he plays like that, especially against good teams, he gives us a chance."
The Cougars (26-31-3-5) are now one point back of the Tri-City Americans for the final playoff spot in the WHL Western Conference. They gained a point on the Americans thanks to the Everett Silvertips, who beat Tri-City 3-2 Saturday in a shootout. A Cougar win Tuesday night in Kelowna will move them into eighth spot. The Americans now have three games in hand over Prince George.
The Rockets beat the Cats 4-2 Friday. With that win the Rockets (48-8-0-4) became the first WHL team this season to reach 100 points this season. The Cougars ended Kelowna's five game win streak and will try to build on that for Tuesday's game..
"They have a good hockey team," said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska. "They are in most games they play and we've seen that all year long. They gone through stretches where they've had injuries but they're a good team, so we don't expect anything to be not a close game."
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