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Gauthier great in net for Cougars

Taylor Gauthier could not have picked a better team to beat for his first Western Hockey League win.

Taylor Gauthier could not have picked a better team to beat for his first Western Hockey League win.

The 16-year-old from Calgary, dubbed the goalie of the future for the Prince George Cougars, wasn't overly busy while facing just 17 shots Tuesday night at CN Centre. But he was good when he had to be in a 7-1 win over the Calgary Hitmen - his favourite WHL team until that day in May 2016 when the Cougars made him their first-round bantam draft choice.

"It's a really cool experience to get my first win against the hometown team I grew up watching and idolizing," said Gauthier. "Obviously it would have been nice to save that one goal but at the end of the day we got the win and that's all I really care about.

"I don't think the score was really accurate, they played a good game and gave us a good run for our money right to the third period."

After they host Kamloops in a two-game weekend set this Friday and Saturday at CN Centre, the Cougars head to Alberta next week and Gauthier has

Oct. 22 marked on his calendar. He's hoping to get the start when the Cougars and Hitmen meet for the rematch

Oct. 22 at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Cougars head coach Richard Matvichuk says there's a good chance that will happen. He certainly liked what he saw out of his rookie goalie in Tuesday's game.

"Sean Murray, being here as our goalie coach, has worked with him tirelessly and it's paying off," said Matvichuk. "It might be a bit of added pressure for him (to play in Calgary) but he played well enough to get the start anytime.

"I thought he was fantastic, he moved the puck real well and made the first save when he had to. Except for the acrobatic one at the end there that gives coaches gray hair I thought he was real good. He's very composed for a 16-year-old. After his first couple starts, obviously he wasn't happy with the outcome and he knows if he puts the work ethic in it's just a matter of time before good things happen and (Tuesday night) was a perfect example."

Gauthier's unforgettable night produced a memorable save in the third period when he had Hitmen centre Matteo Gennaro bearing down on him. Gauthier bobbled the shot with his glove and the puck kicked up high and over his head and was going into the net when he spun and swatted it out of the air with his stick blade.

Not that it really would have mattered much if it had gone in. The Cougars were comfortably ahead 5-1 at that point. Gennaro scored the only Hitmen goal, a power-play bullet in the second period, to make it 3-1 game.

Picked ninth overall in the 2016 draft, Gauthier was an integral part of the Calgary Buffaloes midget triple-A team last season, leading them to Alberta Midget League regular season title in 2017. He's eligible for the 2019 NHL draft.

Gauthier allowed four goals in his first WHL game Sept. 23 at CN Centre, a 5-1 loss to Spokane, and was in for all five goals while losing 5-1 Sept. 29 in Seattle. With just three games behind him this season, he's made a rapid adjustment to facing down WHL shooters.

"Just the speed of the shots and the way the guys can hide their releases is so much better from the level I played last year, but I'm starting to get used to that and I'm getting more comfortable out there," he said. "I just need to keep building and get more confidence every day and hopefully I can get more starts. I do my best to save every shot in practice so whenever it gets to the games I'm ready for every opportunity to make the save."

Kody McDonald was the big gun for the Cats Tuesday with three goals - his second career WHL hat trick. Aaron Boyd, Josh Maser, Vladiimir Mikhalchuk and Jared Bethune also scored for P.G. Bethune's goal was a thing of beauty, a toe-drag move through the middle to split the defence, while shorthanded, as was Boyd's breakaway goal in the third period.

On a day in which the Cougars placed 20-year-old defenceman Shane Collins on waivers it was fitting the other three 20-year-olds - Bethune, Boyd and Brogan O'Brien - took it upon themselves to set the tone as leaders on the ice. Collins was a fixture on the Cougars' blueline for four full seasons and it was hard on everybody on the team - especially the veterans - to have to say goodbye as the deadline to declare the three overagers came and went Tuesday.

"It was a tough day for our guys, it was an emotional day and there were tears flowing," said Matvichuk. "What it was was a learning lesson for these guys who are eventually going to be pro hockey players that stuff like this can happen any day and it's how you react to it.

"We want to thank Shane for what he's done here, he's a fantastic kid and we hope he lands on his feet, he's going to be missed. When you see a kid of his nature you've got to give the parents credit because he was raised perfectly. He's a gentleman and a class act in every means and that was probably the toughest decision this organization has had to make since I've been here."

Josh Anderson suffered a separated shoulder in the third period last Friday in the Cougars' 7-6 overtime loss to the Kelowna Rockets at CN Centre. The 19-year-old defenceman, a third-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2016, will be out of the lineup for six to eight weeks. They also are without 16-year-old Jonas Harkins, sidelined for the next two weeks with a lower-body injury.

With Collins being released, the Cougars called up 1999-born defenceman Peter Kope from the Camrose Kodiaks of the AJHL. Kope played Tuesday.

Cougars left winger Jackson Leppard, who has been playing well on a line with Bethune and McDonald, made NHL Central Scouting's September list of players to watch and is being projected as a fourth- to sixth-round draft pick.

The 17-year-old Leppard, picked by the Cats eighth overall in 2016, has three goals and six points in eight games in his sophomore season.