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Cougars loaded for bear, ready to take on Kelowna Rockets in Round 2

Sellout crowds expected at CN Centre for weekend games to start WHL Western Conference semifinal series

If you haven’t yet got a ticket for either of the first two games of the WHL Western Conference semifinal series tonight (7 p.m.) and Saturday at CN Centre, good luck finding one.

Both games between the Prince George Cougars and Kelowna Rockets are going to be completely sold out. That’s just the how Rockets head coach Kris Mallette remembers it from his playing days as a defenceman for the Rockets when it was chock-a-block on any given night they visited Prince George.

Now 45, Mallette is in his 10th season coaching the Rockets and fourth year as head coach. But before he became a coach and before he started his nine-year stint as a minor pro blueliner, he knew what it was like to play as an opponent in the building formerly known as the Prince George Multiplex, where fans took pride in creating a deafening cacophony from the stands.

“I played back when the CN Centre was rocking, back in the late ‘90s and it’s going to be great for our group to get up there and experience that,” said Mallette. “We’re really happy the community is backing the Cougars and it makes for a real fun environment to play in front of, for sure.”

The Cougars went 6-1-0-1 head-to-head against the Rockets this season and all but two of the meetings between the teams were one-goal games, including an 8-1 blowout for the Cats on Oct.4.

The Cougars have had a full week to rest up for Round 2 after sweeping the Spokane Chiefs in a four-game series. Kelowna finished off Wenatchee Wild on Sunday in a six-game series.

“They’re a really good team and we know them well because we played them a lot,” said Cougars defenceman Viliam Kmec. “Obviously they have really good players and they’re good goalscorers but I think our d-corps is ready to a face them.

“They’re offensively great and they have better structure than Spokane, so that’s going to be a bit more difficult, but I think we can do it. We went really prepared into that series and worked really hard and held each other accountable through the whole series.”

The Cougars head into the series cruising on an unprecedented 23-game streak in which they’ve gone 21-0-1-1.

“I think we just found our game since Christmas, every player found his role and we’ve been playing our best,” said Kmec. “We play really confident and we just keep rolling. Winning is the best part of hockey and obviously if you’re winning that much it just brings so much more fun to the game.’

During the 68-game season the Cougars’ offence produced 316 goals (second in WHL), while the Rockets scored 250 (10TH). Prince George was the league’s second-stingiest team, allowing just 187 goals, while Kelowna gave up 258 (14th).

The Cougars’ special teams that were second in each category during the season and they’ve kept up the trend in the playoffs. During their four-game series win over Spokane, the Cats’ power play clicked with 31.8 per cent efficiency (third-best), as compared to Kelowna’s 25 per cent (eighth). The Prince George penalty kill in the playoffs is working at 93.8 per cent clip, while the Rockets are at 72 per cent (11th).

The Rockets have two deadly scoring lines. Leading pointgetter Andrew Cristall, who had 47 goals and 111 points to finish fifth in the WHL scoring race and likely would have ended up closer to Cougars sniper Zac Funk’s 123-point total had he not missed six games.

Cristall already has three goals and eight assists for 11 playoff points in six games, tied for second in the WHL with teammate Tij Iginla. Iginla scored eight goals in the six-game Wenatchee series, equaling the Rockets’ record’ for goals by one player in a playoff series. Cristall, a Washington Capitals draft pick, plays the right side on a line with centre Gabriel Szturc (4-4-8) and Max Graham (3-4-7). Like his father Jarome, Iginla lines up at centre, playing with LW Michel Cicek (1-4-5) and RW Hiroki Gojsic (0-4-4).

Seattle Kraken third-rounder Caden Price (1-7-8) leads the defence for Kelowna.

“Obviously they’ve got confidence and feel good about their game coming out of the first round and they’ve got two lines that can create a lot of offence,” said Cougars associate coach Jim Playfair. “Our focus is on our system details and making sure we’re prepared to do things right. Our five-on-five game and taking care of the puck is going to be really important because the one-goal games, that’s generally how you win in the playoffs.

“Special teams are going to balance each other out - they’ve got a great power play and we’ve got a good power play and that’s where we recognize we’ve got to get four lines going and six defenceman going and we’re going to need more bodies. We’ve got some depth and we’re looking forward to this series.”

The Cougars and Rockets were the highest-scoring teams in the BC Division and there could be plenty of fireworks in the series with the Cougars boasting three players who each scored at least 100 points, including Funk, who led the league with 67 goals, Riley Heidt (37-80-117) and Terik Parascak (43-62-105). Becher just missed the 100-point club with 96, including 32 goals.

“They’re a team that’s built to win this year, so I anticipate a team much like we saw through the season that transitions well, very offensive-minded, that’s got really solid goaltending and special teams,” said Mallett. “They’re a very complete team that has some guys that have waited some time to get to this position.”

Through four playoff games, Funk has three goals and five assists while Becher and Heidt each have seven points, followed by Parascak, with four goals and two assists.

First-team BC Division all-star and Bill Hunter Trophy candidate Hudson Thornton leads the defence, maintaining a point-per-game pace in the playoffs coming off a 74-point season. Kmec was next in line on the Cougars among defenceman with nine goals and 34 points, one point better than Bauer Dumanski.

Playfair considered Dumanski the MVP of the Spokane series for his penalty-killing, shot-blocking and shutdown ability. Paired with Chase Pauls, they cramped the style of Chiefs’ sniper Berkly Catton, coming off a 54-goal, 116-point season, limiting him four assists in the four games.

Rookie Cougars netminder Joshua Ravenbergen played three of the four playoff games against the Chiefs and compiled a 2.33 GAA and .918 save rate. Ty Young put up even better numbers in the series-clinching Game 4 in Spokane, allowing just two goals on 32 shots for a 2.00 GAA and .938 save percentage in the playoffs.

Jari Kikkanen had just one regulation loss and one shootout loss (to the Cougars) in his last 12 games to close the regular season and he’s played every minute of every game in the playoffs for a 2.86 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.

The Cougars had just one bad period in the series in Game 2 when they lost their cool and allowed the Chiefs to score four goals in the third period and hung on to win 7-4. Playfair said rather than dwell on negatives that brought out, the players went to Spokane and got back to what made them so successful throughout the series.

“We went on the road and cleaned up some of those areas, this team is very receptive to recognizing how to improve what we need to improve on, they’re coachable,” said Playfair.

“So there’s no pushback when we talk to them about having to have more discipline or be more consistent in some areas. They’re at the point now where they expect to win, they just need our help.”

Based on their fifth-place 33-30-4-1 regular season finish, 31 points below the Cougars, Mallette says the Rockets will be hard-pressed to beat a team that went 49-15-1-3 to win the Western Conference and went into the playoffs as the top-ranked major junior team in the Canada.

“We’re obviously dubbed as an underdog, Prince George has been Number 1, they’re a veteran team and we’re a younger team so  for us, playing hockey at this point of the  season is a bonus for us,” said Mallett. “We’ve just got to play to our strengths to the best of our abilities.

“We’ve had some real good games with them and I think they’re two teams that know each other well. Everything in playoffs is now out the window. It’s which team shows up on any given night and a lot of things have to fall in place for a team to have success.”

The Cougars are healthy with the return of winger Hunter Laing, back in the lineup after suffering a concussion in a game against the Vancouver Giants March 17 in Langley. Laing’s father is Rockets associate coach Quintin Laing.

Prediction: Cougars in six