Too bad for the Prince George Cougars there are no playoffs in this pandemic year in the Western Hockey League.
The way they’ve been cruising in high gear lately as the season heads into final stages there’s no telling how far they’d go if the Ed Chynoweth Cup was on the line.
Taylor Gauthier has been lights-out in net for the Cats, playing the best hockey of his WHL career in his fourth season in the league. His 26-save shutout in a 3-0 win over the Vancouver Giants in what was the 150th game of his career was just another example of the hot streak Gauthier’s been on lately.
He’s allowed two goals or less the past five games – all of them Cougar wins – and in three of those games he’s given up just one goal. The win over the Giants was the fifth in the six-game season series and it moved the Cougars one point ahead of Vancouver into second place in the B.C. Division. It’s been four years since the Cats have ranked that high in the standings.
“He’s right on top of his game and you can really tell the veteran presence he’s bringing now, stuff that we’ve seen in spurts lots of times since I’ve been around,” said Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb. “The consistency and leadership he’s bringing is excellent.”
Gauthier made 37 saves in a 5-1 win over division-leading Kamloops on April 28. He’s shaved his goals-against average down to 2.70 and now has a .917 save percentage while improving his season record to 7-6.
“He takes away all the mistakes (the team makes) and camouflages them and right now he looks like he not even going to get scored on,” said Lamb. “He’s always had the ability, and experience goes a long ways. He really knows the shooters and the other teams and that stuff all goes into it.”
While Gauthier has clearly stood out, earning WHL goaltender-of-the-week honours last week, rookie winger Koehn Ziemmer has also drawn his share of the attention for the 9-7-2-1 Cougars. The 16-year-old from Mayerthorpe, Alta., chosen by the Cougars fourth overall in the 2019 WHL draft, leads the team with nine goals and also has three assists for 12 points in 19 games, one point behind scoring leader Craig Armstrong. Ziemmer packs 209 pounds onto a five-foot-10 frame. He’s strong on the puck and brings a level of feistiness that makes him difficult for defenders to deal with.
“What a player,” said Lamb. “Lately he’s doing more of what he can do; he’s getting more confidence. He always had that fire. He goes into traffic. He does everything. He’s an emotional guy and I love it. When things aren’t going well he’ll go out there and change the pace. Some of the goals he scores are just game-breaking goals. There’s nothing there and then, all of sudden, it’s in the net.”
The Cougars are down to their last three games. They’ll travel to Kelowna to play the Victoria Royals Saturday night (7:05 p.m. start), then return to Kamloops to face the Kelowna Rockets on Sunday (6 p.m.). They wrap the season next Wednesday at Sandman Centre in Kamloops against the Kamloops Blazers, who are battling the Rockets for the best winning percentage which will ultimately determine B.C. Division bragging rights.
“The biggest thing is we want to keep doing what we’re doing and keep trying to improve,” said Lamb. “There’s been really bright spots right through, even the guys who haven’t had much ice time are finding roles and being positive parts of the team.”
Gauthier and 16-year-old rookie Ty Young have handled the goaltending duties the past two weeks while Tyler Brennan was in Texas, where he shared the spoils of Canada’s 5-3 win Thursday over Russia in the gold-medal game of the IIHF Under-18 World Hockey Championship.
Brennan was the third goalie for Canada and unfortunately did not have the opportunity to play in the tournament. Benjamin Gaudreau of the Sarnia Sting and Thomas Milic of the Seattle Thunderbirds were the only two Canadian goalies who made the game-day lineup in the 10-team event.
“(Brennan) is a highly-touted goaltender that deserved to be there,” said Lamb. “He was the only goaltender there that’s not draft-eligible and I think that had something to do with the playing time. But I know they would have had no problem is something happened (to the together two) putting him right in there. He was there and there’s a lot of other kids who don’t get to go there and be part of it.
“That’s how they did it and you can’t say they did it wrong. They just got the gold.”
The Cougars have had injuries to deal with and centres Brendan Boyle (shoulder) and Ethan Browne (concussion) might not be back before the season ends. RW Kyren Gronick has missed five games with a shoulder injury but he’s been skating and might be ready to return this weekend. LW Jonny Hooker is slated to return Saturday after serving a four-game suspension for his high hit on Kamloops Blazers forward Connor Zary.
As well as the rookies, namely Ziemmer, Gronick, Keaton Dowhaniuk, Jaren Brinson, Riley Heidt and Fischer O’Brien, have played, the Cougars have seven 2001-born players who will be fighting for overage spots on the roster next season. Lamb says all seven have been living up to expectations and are making it difficult for the coaches to decide who should be on the list of 20-year-olds when the roster is finalized next fall. One example is how well 19-year-old Tyson Upper has filled in for Gronick on the top line, scoring goals in four of those five games.
“I’ve seen a real shift in attitude and how we play,” said Lamb. “What I’ve seen over the course of this hub is every one of these guys adds value to the team in different areas, which makes my job harder, which is great.”