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Cougars living life of Riley, jump to 2-0 lead in WHL second-round series

Rookie Ravensbergen slams the door in 5-0 win over Kelowna, posts back-to-back shutouts

How’s that for start to a second-round playoff series?

The Prince George Cougars are getting better with age, if that’s possible, and showed it Saturday in a 5-0 win over the Kelowna Rockets.

Another superlative performance between the pipes from rookie goaltender Joshua Ravensbergen sent the Rockets home deeply disturbed by the fact they now trail the WHL Western Conference semifinal series 2-0.

The 17-year-old Ravensbergen made 16 saves to post back-to-back playoff shutouts.

Including his six perfect games during the season he now has eight WHL shutouts to his credit.

The Cougars could not have asked for better start, and Riley Heidt was the instigator whose diligence on defence directly led to two Prince George goals before the game was four minutes old.

Heidt picked off a cross-ice pass attempt from Michael Cicek and broke in alone down the left wing and while standing level with the goal line he banked the puck in off the leg of Jari Kykkanen. That goal, the first of the playoffs for Heidt, came just 1:49 in.

The Rockets were on the power play a couple minutes later when Heidt stole the puck from Tij Iginla and chipped the puck ahead to Terik Parascak who skated into the Kelowna zone on a 2-on-1. Parascak let go a shot that dropped out of Kykkanen’s glove and Viliam Kmec was there to jam in the rebound for a 2-0 lead.

Heidt showed why he’s first over the boards as one of the penalty-killers of choice on a team that’s top of the charts while shorthanded. Including the four they killed off Saturday, the Cats sport a league-leading 96 per cent efficiency rating and they showed another example of what they’re capable of on the PK late in the first period. Oren Shtorm drew two Rockets into the corner and found Heidt all alone in the slot and fed him the puck and if not for a sharp pad save from Kykkanen it would have been his second strike of the period and a three-goal Cougar lead.

“This game was a little different from the first one (a 4-0 win on Friday) and we got ourselves in penalty trouble but the d-men, Bauer (Dumanski) and (Chase Pauls) stood out for us, you could see them block a bunch of shots and (Ravensbergen)  kept us in it,” said Heidt.

“We won the 5-on-5 battles tonight and our PK was great. I think it’s just the buy-in, our coach has done a good job putting in the system for us and it’s trust within everyone, we’re all on the same page. At the end of the day it’s about sacrificing your body and that’s what guys do.”

Heidt, a second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2023 has concentrated on becoming a better defensive player and said working on that aspect of his game helped him climb to the top three in league scoring this season with 117 points.

“He’s come a long way and to be a good player you’ve got to play both ways and he wants to play pro,” said Cougars head coach and GM Mark Lamb. “He’s really brought that into his game this year, along with the penalty-killing. He’s turning into a really solid two-way player.

“He hadn’t scored (before Saturday) but it really doesn’t matter, he’s doing so much and the impact he has in the game is large.”

Turnovers, by seasoned Rocket veterans, continued to plague the visitors in the second period. Zac Funk used his speed to pressure Kelowna scoring leader Andrew Cristall along the side boards at centre and he coughed up the puck. That created another odd-man rush with Koehn Ziemmer, who got the pass from Funk and fired off a shot from between the hash marks that Kykkanen kicked out with his leg, leaving the loose puck for Funk, who tucked it in with backhander, his fourth postseason goal and 11th point.

“That’s part of our game plan, you pressure teams and they’re going to make mistakes and we’re trying to force and it’s been working for us,” said Heidt. “It felt good. It’s always nice when you get (a goal) right from the start. It was a huge effort from our team all around, we were all in it, everyone was skating and when we’re hungry we’re really effective.”

Ondrej Becher extended his point streak to 25 games with a stretch pass that sprung Borya Valis free on a breakaway. Valis dangled as he approached the crease and got Kykkanen to open up and tucked the puck between his legs to extend the lead to 4-0.

The Cougars had no intentions of letting up or giving any life to the Rockets and showed their will to keep the puck out of the net seven minutes into the third with a sequence of four blocked shots in rapid-fire succession that brought the fans in the sellout crowd of 5,858 out of their seats.

Shtrom earned himself a second playoff goal this series late when he got to his own rebound after a face-off win in the Kelowna end right after Matteo Danis took a teeth-bashing shot in the mouth while standing close to the Rockets goal.

The Rockets were the second-highest scoring team in the BC Division this season but they’re not showing it.

Cristall, who had 40 goals and 111 points in the season and led the WHL after the first playoff round with 11 points has been held in check by the Cougars. The second-round pick of the Washington Capitals’ pick in 2023 has had just one shot on goal in the two games and carries a minus-5 rating.

Cristall’s linemate Max Graham is hoping a change of scenery will bring out the Rockets’ scoring punch when the series resumes Tuesday in Kelowna with Game 3.

“They’re the Number 1 team in the CHL for a reason, they’ve got depth from top to bottom,” said Graham. “They’re definitely a tough matchup but if we play our game I think it’s something should be able to handle a lot better than we have these first two games.

“Both games up here were pretty tough but it’s a long series and we’re going back home here and we’re just going to try to regroup and play our game and play how we know we can. It’ll be a lot better in front of our home crowd, we think. We should be excited to go home to try tie the series up.”

The Cougars outshot Kelowna 44 - 16 and Graham said his goalie could not be faulted for the loss.

“Jari has been by far our best player all playoffs and he’s keeping us in it, without him we don’t want to know what the score would look like,” said Graham. “We’ve got to help him out a lot more.

“Their goalie has been playing good, but in two games we’ve got to find a way to get one past him. If you don’t score there’s no way you’re going to win. It’s the high-risk plays that are kind of biting us in the butt, we just have to focus on just playing simple and no high-risk plays through the middle anymore.”

Game 4 will be played in Kelowna on Wednesday. If Game 5 is needed it would be played Friday at CN Centre.

WHL playoffs

Western Conference quarterfinal

Prince George Cougars vs. Kelowna Rockets

(Cougars lead best-of-seven series 2-0)

Game 2

Saturday summary

Rockets 0 at Cougars 5

First Period

1. Prince George, Heidt 1, 1:49

2. Prince George, Kmec 3 (Parascak, Heidt) 3:58 (sh)

Penalties – Foster PG (cross-checking) 2:01, Johnson Kel (holding) 9:48, Gojsic Kel (interference) 15:00, Ziemmer PG (cross-checking) 17:02, Heidt PG (hooking) 19:20.

Second Period

3. Prince George, Funk 4 (Ziemmer)11:15

Penalties – Gojsic Kel (cross-checking) 6:00, Kmec PG (hooking) 8:11, Johnson Kel (slashing) 18:07

Third Period

4. Prince George, Valis 4 (Becher, Thornton) 0:46

5. Prince George, Shtrom 2 (Ziemmer) 14:39

Penalty – Mittelstaedt Kel (high-sticking) 18:36.

Shots on goal by

Kelowna            6            5            5           - 16

Prince George  15          18          11          - 44

Goal – Kelowna, Kykkanen (L,4-4); Prince George, Ravensbergen (W,5-0).

Power plays – Kel: 0-4; PG: 0-6.

Attendance – 5,858.

Referees –Adam Bloski, Jarrod Lucoe; Linesmen – Michael McGowan, Anthony Maletta.

Scratches – Kelowna: D Landon Cowper (healthy), D Lachlan Staiforth (healthy), RW Luke Schetler (suspended); Prince George: D Drew Peterson (healthy), LW Arjun Bawa (healthy), D Carson Carels (healthy), RW Nicholas McLennan (healthy), LW Lee Shergot (healthy), RW Kayden Lemire (healthy), RW Patrick Sopiarz (healthy), G Brady Holtvogt (healthy).