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Hooker turns Cats into Giant slayers

The Prince George Cougars had faith Jonny Hooker was going to be a regular point producer when they traded for him at midseason last year. Now he’s starting to prove it.

The Prince George Cougars had faith Jonny Hooker was going to be a regular point producer when they traded for him at midseason last year.

Now he’s starting to prove it.

Hooker scored the game-winning goal and assisted on three others to stake the Cougars to a 6-3 win over the Vancouver Giants Saturday night in the WHL pod in Kamloops. Hooker picked up where he left off after a two-goal effort in an overtime loss Tuesday to Victoria and the 19-year-old from Winnipeg was the difference maker putting a stake through the heart of the Giants to help the Cats end a three-game losing skid.

The Cougars had six different goalscorers as they snapped the Giants’ five-game win streak.

Hooker’s third goal of the season made it a 4-2 count with just 4.6 seconds left in the second period when he found the net with a no-look wrist shot. That came near the tail end of a major penalty to Giants’ winger Bryce Bader, who left a bloody mark on Hooker’s face in an open-ice collision and was banished for the rest of game.

“Obviously (Hooker is) playing with confidence and he’s using his skill set, which is shooting the puck and getting around the net to create opportunities,” said Cougars associate coach Jason Smith. “He’s gotten points a lot of different ways, some were set up in the o-zone, some were off the rush and some have been because he helped create a turnover and we capitalized off it. His work ethic and his practice habits are allowing him to have success right now.”

Craig Armstrong scored the go-ahead goal for the Cats early in the period while killing a penalty. He took the puck from Hooker along the centre boards and faked out Mark Stacha to get free on a breakaway and went to his backhander to collect his first goal of 2021.

In the third period, rookie defenceman Hudson Thornton, in his WHL debut, gave the Cougars a 5-3 lead, scoring on a left wing rush with a wrister from the circle over the glove of Trent Miner. Thornton, 17, the Cougars second-round pick in 2018, drafted 33rd overall, played last season in the BCHL for the Chilliwack Chiefs. He went to the USHL Fargo Force for the start of this season and played 22 games for Fargo before he made his decision to sign with the Cougars in February. His goal was a gut-cruncher for the Giants.

“Even though he hasn’t played for quite some time you can see that he’s got a gift moving the puck and getting involved in the offence but he’s also very capable defending and that something he really wants to work on his game to become an all-around player and a complete defenceman,” said Smith. “If you work and create the right habits as a young player you rally  give yourself the opportunity to play well in games if you’re doing things right, whether it’s in the gym or on the practice rink, he’s been doing that for us.”

Leslie’s second of the night a couple minutes later kept the Giants close but Connor Bowie, celebrating his 20th birthday, ended it with an empty-net goal.

“The biggest thing is we played a complete game,” said Smith. “You’re always going to have some mistakes throughout a game and maybe some execution problems but our attention to detail and our work ethic was as complete as it’s been all year. Everybody contributed and put their best foot forward and when you get efforts form everybody for 60 minutes long you really give yourself a good chance to win games.”

The teams were tied 2-2 after two periods. Cougar rookies Keaton Dowhaniuk and Koehn Ziemmer, the respective third- and fourth-overall picks in the 2019 WHL draft, hooked up for the tying goal with four seconds left in the opening period. Hooker fed Dowhaniuk at the right point and his high shot was tipped in front of the net by Ziemmer for his second career WHL goal.

That came seven minutes after Giants captain Alex Kannok-Liepert restored the lead for on a Vancouver power play. Hooker was also in on the Cougars first goal. He got a skate blade on defenceman Jaren Brinson’s point shot and the puck ricocheted off the end boards behind the net and out to Ethan Browne, who scored on a backhander. The assist was the first WHL point for the rookie Brinson, a 16-year-old from Airdrie, Alta.

Giants rookie Mazden Leslie scored twice for the Giants. The 15-year-old defenceman from Lloydminster, Alta., opened the scoring in the game and also netted the Giants’ third goal midway through the third period. It was his second two-goal game in six games for Leslie, who turns 16 on Thursday.

Tyler Brennan made 26 saves in the Cougar nets. He was making his final WHL appearance of the season before he heads to Texas to play for Canada in the IIHF U-18 world hockey championship, which starts April 26. The 17-year-old Brennan will say goodbye to his Cougar teammates early next week before he goes into quarantine. The world tournament runs through May 5 and the season will be over by the time Brennan clears quarantine protocols on his return to Canada.

Brennan has drawn three straight starts. He made 43 saves and earned his first WHL shutout in a 1-0 shootout loss to the Giants on April 4. He finishes the season with a 2.16 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and a 2-0-0-1 record.

LOOSE PUCKS: Browne’s goal 8:43 into the game was the first goal Miner has allowed in four games this season. His club-record shutout streak lasted 234 minutes 31 seconds…. Browne had another impressive outing with a goal and an assist as the game’s third star… Erik Florchuk drew second-star honours after leading the Giants with three assists… The Cougars and Giants will meet again for the third time this season Monday in Kamloops. Game time is 7 p.m.