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Red-hot Cougars, Royals meet this weekend in Prince George

The Royals (17-11-2) are six points behind the leading Cougars ­(21-7), making this a potential big swing weekend for both clubs.
Cougars Riley Heidt vs. Victoria Oct. 16 2021
Cougars centre Riley Heidt fires at the Victoria Royals net during a 2021 game at CN Centre.

Very few teams can suffer the sort of injury the Prince George Cougars have incurred, with third-round Los Angeles Kings draft pick Koehn Ziemmer expected out long term, and not have it turn out catastrophic. Ziemmer had 31 points, but most teams don’t have the depth or balance of this season’s ­Cougars to absorb that sort of loss.

The Cougars dropped from the top spot, to No. 2 behind the Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, in the Canadian Hockey League top-10 poll. But that was as much to do about the ­success of the Drakkar than any fall-off in play by the Cougars. Despite being without Ziemmer, the ­Cougars went 3-0 on the road over the week led by the likes of Minnesota Wild second-round draft pick Riley Heidt and 20-year-old breakout player Zac Funk.

The Victoria Royals have matched that with three ­consecutive road wins of their own heading into tonight and Saturday night’s clashes between the Royals and ­Cougars at the CN Centre in Prince George.

For the first time since 2019-20, the Royals (17-11-2) are in play in the top half of the WHL Western Conference ­standings and are six points behind the leading Cougars ­(21-7), making this a potential big swing weekend for both clubs.

This appears to be a different Royals club than the one that opened the home portion of the 2023-24 season with 11-2 and 5-3 losses to the Cougars at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre to fall to 0-4.

Defenceman Keaton Verhoeff, taken by the Royals fourth overall in the 2023 WHL prospects draft, made his Royals WHL debut Tuesday in Seattle in the 5-4 victory over the Thunderbirds. He is restricted to five WHL games as a 15-year-old and is expected with the club in Prince George this weekend.

Verhoeff and Royals rookie forward Cole Reschny, selected third overall by the Royals in the 2022 WHL prospects draft, are expected to provide the backbone of the Royals roster heading into the coming seasons, much as respective 2020 second overall and 2019 fourth overall WHL draft selections Heidt and Ziemmer have provided for the Cougars the past few seasons.