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Cougars advance to WHL Western Conference final

Five unanswered goals in second period lead to 6-3 win over Kelowna Rockets; Cats win series 4-1

The Kelowna Rockets dared to poke a sleeping bear and suffered dire consequences.

Their two-goal jab at the Prince George Cougars that gave the Rockets the lead at the start of the second period might have had some of the 6,014 in attendance Friday at CN Centre thinking they might not get the desired outcome, but they needn’t have worried.

The Cougars were about to show their true colours.

They ravaged the Rockets with five unanswered goals in the last half of the second period and when the fur finally stopped flying the Cats had the fourth win they so craved. It was a 6-3 decision that gave them the series win and date with the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Conference final that starts Friday in Prince George.

Zac Funk, with three goals, and Riley Heidt, with two goals and two assists, were the primary instigators on offence for the Cougars, who advanced to the third round for the fourth time in Prince George franchise history and the first time since 2007.

“When you look at the series as a whole we had the two good games here, we had to go to overtime (in Game 3 in Kelowna) and then you had the reality of recognizing they’re a very good team that got to the second round for a reason,” said Cougars associate coach Jim Playfair.

“Our team had some adversity in the last game and we had some again in the game tonight but that’s what separates you in the playoffs, that’s what you’re supposed to go through, you’re supposed to have those challenges and I thought we met them.”

 The Cougars and their fans thought they had opened the scoring six minutes in when Funk raised his stick to haul in a lead pass just inside the blueline, skated in and whipped a wrister in off Jari Kykkanen’s glove and in. But the play was blown dead when the officials ruled Funk’s stick was above his shoulder when he corralled the puck.

Funk obviously wasn’t fazed to have the goal called back because he got right back on his horse to take advantage of the first power play of the game. He was standing just off the post when he took a pass from Heidt and quickly moved the puck into the centre of the crease to slide in along the ice through Kykkanen’s legs.

The Rockets gained some momentum on their first power play and after it ended they severely tested Ravensbergen twice in rapid succession late in the opening period. First it was Cristall who shot from between the hash marks was stopped by the goalie’s glove. Seconds later, Ravensbergen’s lightning reflexes shot out his skate for a toe save that was probably his best save of the series.  

The Rockets found their stride to start second period, scoring a pair of goals 15 seconds apart to briefly change the complexion. Cristall, the Rockets’ leading scorer in the season with 111 points in 62 games, took off on a breakaway stretch pass from Tij Iginla and made the most of it. Going to backhand on a deke through the legs of Ravensbergen.

The Rockets pushed the puck in deep on the ensuing face-off and Cristall spotted Iginla in front for a tap-in and a 2-1 Kelowna lead.

Cougars coach Mark Lamb wisely called a time out, preaching calm with his troops, and it had the desired effect.

The Cougars were virtually unstoppable for the rest of the period, relentless in their five-goal feeding frenzy.

“Our leaders definitely stepped up in that time out and that is kind of what we need to do, we’re never out of game and we knew that,” said Funk. “We’ve got the good team to do it and good things happen when you’re steady at the wheel.

“We went through video this morning, showing the things they weren’t happy with and obviously as a player you take that to heart. I was in the video, I wasn’t doing my job and took that to heart and I wanted to make an impact tonight and I think a lot of guys can say the same.”   

Rookie Jett Lajoie started it at the 9:10 mark, filing away a rebound in front to tie the game with his first career WHL playoff goal.

“That was unreal, especially at a crucial time,” said Lajoie. “Down 2-1, (Pauls) shot from the point and I got it. Goalie was down and I sniped. It was beautiful, the crowd was buzzing.

“We’re the fourth line, the energy line, and we pop one in and the boys just rolled and carried on from there.”

Not long after, Funk got his stick on a point shot from Vilam Kmec for his second of the night.

Funk completed his ninth hat trick of the season on a 5-on-3 power-play chance just before the intermission, set up by a saucer pass through the crease from Parascak.

Following Funk’s lead, Heidt also put the team on his shoulders, scoring back-to-back goals. On the first one he raced behind the net to complete a turnover and chipped the puck for Carlin Dezainde, whose slot shot was stopped but the puck was left uncovered for Heidt.

Later on, Heidt’s speed on a left-wing rush from centre gave him nothing but unobstructed ice as he carried the puck deep and circled the net to beat Kykkanen on a wraparound for the fifth Cougars’ goal.

After their 2-1 loss Wednesday in Kelowna, the Cougars coaching staff challenged the veterans to be better in Game 5 and Heidt and Funk especially answered the bell.

“They’re NHL players now and they have to start acting like NHL players and carrying themselves like NHL players and I think that’s what they both have done in the last little while,” said Playfair. “They recognize that much is given and much is expected and they’ve been given an opportunity through the organization to be drafted and signed NHL players and they have an obligation to the organization to compete and deliver when the organization needs them to be top players.

“A lot of players have benefited from having them in the group and now we’re all going to come together and see how far we can push this thing.”    

Ondrej Becher centred a line with Funk and Borya Valis and said there was no need to panic when the Cougars fell behind. They know the firepower they possess as the WHL’s second-highest scoring team and they showed it.

“Jett’s goal was a huge one, we were happy he scored a goal and it helped us a lot, we stuck together and played as a team and that’s the thing,” said Becher.

“The fans were loud and that helped a lot, I think, and that was huge for us.”

Rockets captain Gabriel Szturc capped the scoring in the third period. The 20-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning prospect knew the Cougars and their vaunted offence would be tough to knock off and they ended up outscoring Kelowna a combined 20-8 in the five games.

“Before the series we knew  they could score goals because we already played them eight games,” said Szturc. “Unfortunately the first two games here in P.G. they didn’t go our way and in Kelowna we missed our opportunity that third game and it could have been 2-1 going into the next home match.

“It was a tough series but I’m wishing good luck in the next series for them.”

LOOSE PUCKS: The Winterhawks finished off the Everett Silvertips with a 5-0 win in Everett to complete the series sweep. In the other game Friday in Moose Jaw, the Warriors eliminated the Swift Current Broncos with a 4-2 victory which gave them a 4-1 series win. The Warriors will take on the Saskatoon Blades in the Eastern final… Becher’s secondary assist on Funk’s second goal gave him at least one point in 26 of his last 27 games…It wasn’t all bad blood that flowed between the two teams and that’s due to a couple of shared bloodlines. Cougars left winger Arjun Bawa and Rockets defenceman Kayden Sadhra-Kang are step-brothers. Then there’s the coaching connection. Rockets assistant coach Quinten Laing is the father of Cougars centre Hunter Laing.

WHL playoffs

Western Conference semifinal

Prince George Cougars vs. Kelowna Rockets

(Cougars win best-of-seven series 4-1)

Game 5

Friday summary

Rockets 3 at Cougars 6

First Period

1. Prince George, Funk 5 (Heidt, Thornton) 7:55 (pp)

Penalties – Hurley Kel (tripping) 7:09, Kmec PG (interference) 14:40, Mittelsteadt Kel (roughing), Ziemmer PG (roughing) 20:00.

Second Period

2. Kelowna, Cristall 4 (Iginla) 4:06

3. Kelowna, Iginla 9 (Cristall) 4:18

4. Prince George, Lajoie 1 (Pauls, Thornton) 9:10

5. Prince George, Funk 6 (Kmec, Becher) 10:28

6. Prince George, Heidt 2 (Foster, Dowhaniuk) 13:43

7. Prince George, Heidt 3 (Dezainde, Parascak) 17:44

8. Prince George, Funk 7 (Parascak, Heidt) 19:47 (pp)

Penalties –  Ziemmer PG (holding) 5:34, Cicek Kel (holding stick)  18:42, Wightman Kel (slashing) 19:11.

Third Period

9. Kelowna, Szturc 3 (Mittelsteadt, Iginla) 2:51.

Penalties – Kowalyk Kel (holding) 7:02, Gojsic Kel (holding), Dumanski PG (embellishment) 9:59,   Sadhra-Kang Kel (tripping), Becher PG (embellishment) 11:52, Parascak PG (tripping), Cristall Kel (embellishment) 12:09

Shots on goal by:

Kelowna            12          7            12          -31

Prince George  15          17          8            -39

Goal – Prince George, Ravensbergen (W,7-0); Kelowna, Kykkanen (L,5-6)

Power plays – Prince George: 2-4; Kelowna: 0-2.

Referees: Mike Campbell, Taylor Burzminski; Linesmen: Ron Dietterle, Mitchell Gibbs.

Attendance  - 6,014.