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Cougars-Winterhawks series shaping up to be WHL classic

Teams are mirror images of each other and one has to crack in best-of-seven Western Conference final

Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier.

The Greatest duking it out with Smokin’ Joe.

For boxing fans it was one of the all-time best rivalries in sports, but they met in the ring just three times.

For that reason, you can’t consider the Prince George Cougars and Portland Winterhawks bitter junior hockey rivals, simply because they don’t play each other often enough.

But now that they're playoff series foes, familiarity is breeding contempt.

For the fourth time in league history and third time in eight seasons the Cougars will meet Portland in the playoffs and the stakes have never been higher. The winner goes to the WHL final against either the Saskatoon Blades or Moose Jaw Warriors.

“There’s a real good chance it could (go seven games),” said Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb. “When you look at Portland you see all the skill and you look at all the comparables and it’s like you’re looking in the mirror. It’s like coaching against our team. They have a lot of pieces we have and it’s a pretty evenly-matched series at the start.”

Both teams are well-rested and healthy and both are playing their best hockey of the season. The Cougars are 25-1-1-1 in their last 28 games, with the ’Hawks  on a 17-0-2-0 roll dating back to the regular season.

“Once you get here it’s the final four, it’s very special,” said Lamb. “You do not get here by fluke, that’s for sure. You have to put in a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, and both teams have done that."

As potent as both teams are, Lamb says defence will decide the series.

“Look at all the offence they’ve got - it’s not going to be about offence," he said. "It’s always going to be about keeping the puck out of your end and out of your net. It’s all about goals-against and our goals-against was really good all year, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to win. We’ll see when we get into it.”

The Cats and ‘Hawks played each other four times in the season and each team won twice. Aside from the Cougars’ 4-0 win in Portland Dec. 3 the rest were all one-goal games.

They finished just one point apart atop the Western Conference standings and that was enough to give the Cougars home-ice advantage to start the series. But aside from that, neither team has an obvious advantage.

“I thought the games when we were up there in February were really good well-played hockey games, obviously, 2-1, 2-1,” said Winterhawks head coach and general manager Mike Johnston. “There’s talent on both teams so I think it’s going to be like a couple of the NHL series right now, so tight you can never call it and I think it’s going to be one of those.

“As in all playoff series your depth is going to be tested at some point and now we’re in the third round, so if there’s injuries or anything like that you’re going to have to use your depth. We’re playing three games in four nights and you’re going to have to have depth on your team.”

The ‘Hawks have run the table so far in the playoffs, going a perfect 8-0 while sweeping Victoria and Everett. The Cougars started with a four-game series win over Spokane then dispatched Kelowna in five.

“I look at Prince George and they’ve got a lot of depth, they’ve got scoring, they’ve got size, good defence and good goaltending, so I think it’s going to be a chess match where both teams are going to have to make adjustments on the fly,” said Johnston.

“You look at their high-end players, whether it’s Heidt, Parascak, Funk or Ziemmer, who would have been way up in the lineup points-wise if he’d played through the season, they’ve got some dangerous gamebreaker-type players that we’d better know when they’re on the ice and be aware of their tendencies.”

The Winterhawks have one of the best goalies in the WHL in Jan Spunar. The 19-year-old native of Czechia has played all eight playoff games and sports a sparkling 1.94 goals-against average and .931 save percentage, comparable to the numbers Cougars’ Joshua Ravensbergen has posted (7-0, 1.85 GAA, .931 SV%).

Spunar would have joined ‘Hawks defenceman Marek Alscher and Cougars winger Ondrej Becher on the Czechian world junior team had he not suffered a foot injury in late November that required surgery and kept him sidelined for nine weeks. The ‘Hawks used three other goalies while Spunar was unavailable and 21-year-old SJHL veteran Justen Maric is their current backup. That revolving-door adversity in net forced the ‘Hawks to mature as a group and tighten up defensively and Johnston says that’s made them a better team.

Four members of Portland’s quick-transitioning blueline brigade are NHL-drafted. That list includes Alscher (Florida, third round, ‘22), Carter Sotheran (Philadelphia, fifth round, ‘23), Luca Cagnoni (San Jose, fourth round, ’23) and Tyson Jugnauth (Seattle, fourth round, ’23).

Jugnauth broke into the junior ranks in the BCHL with the West Kelowna Warriors then went to the University of Wisconsin for a 1 ½ seasons before Portland acquired his rights Dec. 6 from the Kamloops Blazers.

Cagnoni already has three goals and 10 points in eight playoff games while Jugnauth and Sotheran each have nine postseason points.

Portland was the only WHL team that scored more often this season than Prince George. The Winterhawks averaged 4.85 goals per game, as compared to the Cougars’ 4.65.

All three Portland 20-year-olds are forwards and two of them Gabe Klassen (35-71-106) and James Stefan (50-51-101, signed with Edmonton Oilers) broke the 100-point barrier. Those two usually play on a line with winger Josh Davies (36-25-61, Florida, sixth round, ’22). Davies, acquired last summer in a trade from Swift Current, has been bothered with a lower-body injury this season and missed the fourth game of the Everett series.

Losing Davies would be a huge loss for the Winterhawks. He plays a gritty style and is not afraid to bowl people over to clear a path, similar in style to Cougars winger Koehn Ziemmer.

The ‘Hawks made one other significant trade this season, picking up 19-year-old centre Nate Danielson from the Brandon Wheat Kings at the deadline. Danielson was the Wheat Kings’ captain and played for Canada at the world junior tournament. Already producing at a point-per-game pace when he got to Oregon, he ended up with 12 goals and 41 points in 28 games. He centres the second line with 20-year-old LW Jack O’Brien and RW Marcus Nguyen.

Another forward to watch is Kyle Chyzowski, 19, who has seven goals and two assists in his last five playoff games.

As expected, the Cougars have been getting scoring from numerous sources and that continued in their five-game series win over Kelowna. Riley Heidt, who had 80 assists in the regular season, already has 13 postseason helpers and he ranks third in playoff scoring with 16 points.

Zac Funk had a hat trick in the series-clincher and is up there with Heidt (7-8-15) among the WHL playoff scoring leaders, playing the right side on a productive line that includes Becher (3-9-12) and Borya Valis (5-2-7).

Rookie winger Terik Parascak (5-7-12), coming off a 105-point season, has kept that up in the playoffs, on a line with Heidt and Calin Dezainde. It seems only a matter of time before Ziemmer has a breakout game offensively, playing with tenacious forecheckers Oren Shtrom and Matteo Danis. That combination combined for the OT winner in Game 3 in Kelowna.

The Cougars are halfway to winning their first WHL championship and Shtrom, who joined them in an off-season trade from Everett, doesn’t see that drive to be No. 1 ending anytime soon.

“It’s very exciting, now everyone is starting to realize the dream of winning is a real possibility and a reality right now, so I think everyone has bought and is excited about where we are right now,” said Shtrom. “We kind of put that pressure on ourselves right away in training camp. That mindset was we’re a good team and we can win now and I think that‘s what our belief has been since the first night and we’ve just continued to do that and believe that.

“(Portland has) a lot of high offensive skill power but I think we have a little more grit and I think we can match that skill power. If we just play them hard we can have the outcome we’re looking for.”

The Cougars have a proven 1-2 punch in goal with the splendid rookie Ravensbergen and 19-year-old Ty Young, who was drafted and signed with the Vancouver Canucks. Young has 11 WHL playoff games behind him, which gives the Cougars an edge in goal. Despite the potential of each team to light it up, Young is predicting tight, low-scoring affairs.

“I think it’s going to be a great matchup between us, on paper we’re almost identical teams,” said Young. “The goals-for, goals-against differential is pretty much dead-even and it’s going to be a close matchup. The guys who have been here for a while know this team, we’ve played them for a long time and it’s a similar team to who we played two years ago.

“I see this being a longer series for sure. I think we’re ready for it, we’re prepared for the travel and stuff and I don’t think they’re used to it as much. I think we have the advantage there. It’s going to be a good series. We’ll bring it back to P.G. if those games are needed and if not we’ll just finish them off there.”

The extent to which the Cougars are now committed to sticking to their systems and playing defence first has taken Young by surprise and he says that's why they’ve been so successful.

“At the start of the year we wanted to do it ourselves a little bit and wanted to put up a lot of points and we were committed to winning games 7-5,” said Young. “Coming down the stretch our team has put in so much effort to get better defensively, like blocking shots, everybody’s putting their bodies on the line and it’s just so fun to be behind those guys.”

Both teams have deadly power plays. Portland is at 41.4 per cent in the playoffs (12-for-29) and P.G. is at 28.9 per cent (11-for-38). The Cougar penalty kill is at 96.8 per cent (1-for-31) and has also scored two shorthanded goals, while the ‘Hawks are at 82.1 per cent (7-for-31).

The Cougar coaching staff has one significant tie to Portland. Associate coach Jim Playfair played 2 ½ seasons for the Winterhawks. He helped them win their first of three WHL championships in 1982 and was there for their first of two Memorial Cups wins in 1983 when they drew the host slot in the tournament, the first team to do so.

The series starts in Prince George Friday and Saturday and both games are sold out.

“It’s great to see that the fans are rallying around the Prince George team because they have an excellent team,” said Johnston. “Mark Lamb has done a great job of building that team up and they’re very exciting to watch. I’ve heard there will be a full house in P.G and that’s great to see that again because it hasn’t been like that over the years.”

There’s 1,175 highway kilometres 12 ½ hours of driving that separate the two cities. A short turnaround means the teams will meet in Portland for the next three games Monday, Wednesday and, if necessary, Thursday. Prince George would host Games 6 and 7, if needed, on Monday, May 6 and Tuesday, May 7.

The tight schedule will put each team’s depth to the test. For this one, the Cougars appear just a bit deeper. We’ll soon find out.

Prediction: Cougars in seven