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Cougars stumble in loss to last-place Royals

Cats chasing their own tails in Kelowna, Victoria picks up first regulation win

Cougars head coach Mark Lamb said in a pre-game interview he thought the team looked sluggish in practice the day before and was worried they might still be in a funk when the puck dropped in Saturday’s game against the Victoria Royals.

Those fears were confirmed.

The Cougars were slow and sloppy in their puck movement, couldn’t put passes together and suffered the consequences. They fell behind 2-0 in the second period and never recovered, losing 2-1 to the last-place Royals in the WHL hub in Kelowna.

Adam Evanoff made 34 saves to pick up his second win of the season in the Victoria nets.

Brandon Cutler and Keanu Derungs gave the Royals (3-15-1-1) the offence they needed to snap the Cougars’ three-game win streak. The Cats (9-8-2-1) remained third in the B.C. Division.

A breakdown in communication led to a shorthanded goal for the Royals 5:24 into the game. Off a face-off in the Victoria end the puck came back to Cougar defencemen Ethan Samson and Keaton Dowhaniuk. Each thought the other was going to play the puck and that second or two of hesitation allowed Cutler to chip the puck forward and he finished off his breakaway chance with a backhand deke he lifted high into the net behind goalie Ty Young.

Taren Fizer set up the second Royals goal on the power play 16:23 into the second period. His quick release from the point found the stick of Derungs and Young had no chance of stopping the tip-in. That ended the Cougars’ streak of 11 straight penalties successfully killed off.

Connor Bowie gave the Cougars something to cheer about with 39 seconds left in the second period when he swept a rebound of a Jonny Hooker shot into the net behind Evanoff on a Prince George power play. For Bowie, it was his eighth goal of the season.

Evanoff, a 20-year-old four-year veteran from Penticton, was strong in his crease standing square to the shooters and rarely gave up rebounds while earning his second win in 14 games. He made 40 saves to beat the Cougars 2-1 in overtime on April 30. All three of the Royals’ wins this season have come at the Cougars’ expense. They also defeated Price George 3-2 in overtime on April 6.

Evanoff kept it scoreless Saturday in the dying seconds of the opening period when he made a diving glove save to swallow Fischer O’Brien backhander on a shorthanded breakaway and also turned aside a Craig Armstrong chance when he got behind enemy lines in the third period.

Young, a 16-year-old rookie from Coaldale, Alta., played well in his third WHL start and was at his best in the opening two periods when his teammates looked totally out of sync - a far cry from the team that came into the game on a three-game roll as the hottest team in the B.C. Division.

“It’s obviously disappointing, our goaltender was a really good player for us tonight but the rest of the group struggled to get momentum and to be engaged in the game right from the start,” said Cougars associate coach Jason Smith. “We didn’t have the focus and the being ready to play to you need to give yourself a real chance to win the game. We were close at the end but it’s a 60-minute game and we didn’t play it.”

Young, is still looking for his first WHL win but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Bowie drew third-star honours but on this night Young was the only real standout wearing a Cougar jersey.

“Ty was very comfortable back there, he gave us an opportunity to stay in the game when we were struggling to get our game going,” said Smith. “He made some real big saves. When your goaltender gives you a chance to in the third period and late in the game to leave the game with points, he’s done a great job, no matter what the shots are. Ty did that for sure.”

The Cougars outshot the Royals 34-21. Each team scored once in their three power-play chances.

The Cougars are back on the ice Sunday in Kamloops (6 p.m.) to face the Kelowna Rockets. The Cats will take on the B.C. Division-leading Kamloops Blazers Wednesday in the final game of the season for both teams.

LOOSE PUCKS: The Everett Silvertips were crowned champions of the U.S. Division. The Tips finished with a 19-4-0-0 record. They join the Edmonton Oil Kings (20-2-0-1, Central) and Brandon Wheat Kings (18-4-2-0, East) as division champions. There are no WHL playoffs this season due to the league’s pandemic concerns with travel restrictions still in place…Rookie RW Kyren Gronick returned to the Cougar lineup after missing five games with a shoulder injury. C Brendan Boyle (shoulder) and C Ethan Browne (concussion) remained sidelined... Cougars defenceman Aiden Reeves was selected volunteer of the year by the Prince George Minor Hockey Association. The 18-year-old Prince George native took advantage of the downtime waiting for the WHL season to begin and his services as an assistant coach for the U-13 Cougars rep team Reeves, in his sophomore WHL season, has played 16 of the Cougars’ 20 games… The WHL released the results of its 13th and final week of COVID testing and in 729 tests from May 1-7 there were no positive tests. Of those tests, 140 were in the B.C. Division hub. The testing program that began Feb. 12 involved 9,735 tests, 14 of which came back positive.