An inspired effort from Alex Ochitwa and stellar goaltending by Jordan Fairlie helped the Cariboo Cougars hand the league-leading Okanagan Rockets their first regulation-time loss of the season.
In the second game of a B.C. Hockey Major Midget League doubleheader, the Cougars skated to a 5-1 victory on Sunday at Kin 1. Ochitwa scored the first and fourth goals for the Cats and Fairlie stopped 40 of 41 Okanagan shots. With the result, the Cougars improved to 9-2-0-1 and the Rockets slipped to 12-1-0-1.
The Rockets defeated the Cougars 4-1 on Saturday and that setback served as motivation for the home side on Sunday. Ochitwa in particular was ready to go after he was challenged by the Cariboo coaching staff before Sunday's opening faceoff to elevate his play.
"I wasn't good the past couple games and I needed to be better," said Ochitwa, a 17-year-old forward from Prince George who leads the team with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 12 outings. "They asked me to be better and, I don't know, I think everybody played better today so it was easier to get things going."
Ochitwa showed some sweet hands on the game's opening goal. With 1:18 left on the clock in the first period, an initial shot on net by Carter Yarish created a rebound that popped high into the air right in front of Okanagan goaltender Bailey Monteith. Ochitwa, who had fought for position at the top of the crease, batted at the puck and knocked it home.
"I was trying to wait for it to come down and make sure it was under the crossbar," Ochitwa said. "I got kind of impatient, I wasn't too sure, and luckily they counted that one."
Ochitwa's second goal of the game came on a power play with 7:43 left in the third period. The marker gave the Cougars a 4-1 lead and took the last bit of steam out of the Rockets.
The Cats led 1-0 after the first period, 2-1 after the second and scored three unanswered goals in the third. Cariboo forward Brennan Bott also finished with two goals, his first on a second-period power play and his second into an empty net late in the third. John Herrington, also in a man-advantage situation, had the other goal for the Cougars, while Dylan Wightman (on a power play) was the only Okanagan shooter who got a puck past Fairlie.
The 16-year-old Fairlie had several key stops in the game, perhaps none bigger than the one he made on a shorthanded breakaway by Benn Krivoshen in the final 10 minutes of the second period. The score was tied 1-1 at the time and, after Fairlie's save, the Cougars turned the puck back up ice and gained the Okanagan zone. Nico Myatovic and Aiden Reeves then set up Bott for his eighth goal of the season. The sequence kept momentum on the Cats' side and sent them into the third period with the lead and the confidence to finish the job against the high-powered Rockets.
"He's going to give us a chance to win most games, night in and night out," Cougars head coach Tyler Brough said of Fairlie, a Fort St. John product who is a prospect of the Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos. "It's nice to see him get rewarded with a big win where he's a big part of it. He made some big saves down the stretch for us on the PK. They always say your best penalty-killer has to be your goalie and today he was."
Penalties were handed out in abundance. The referee called 11 minor infractions against each team, which did little to add to the flow of a game between two of the best clubs in the league.
"We came through - we battled through all adversity there," Brough said. "It was a good character win for the boys. Coming off a loss where we thought we deserved a little bit more, it was nice to see our group rebound."
On Saturday, the Rockets put together a near-perfect road game. They weren't flashy, but they were effective and opportunistic. Up 2-1 in the third period, they scored the all-important insurance marker when Teague Patton hopped on a loose puck after a Cariboo miscue behind the net. Patton slid a pass out front and Wightman was there to knock the puck past Fairlie. The Rockets capped the scoring in the late stages of the game when Rilen Kovacevic broke free and basically skated the puck all the way into an empty net.
Patton and Zackary Funk gave the visitors a 2-0 lead in the second period before Herrington replied for the Cougars.
"I thought we kind of let them dictate the game, dictate the pace after the second period," Brough said. "The result we wanted today was our effort, regardless of the score. We competed for 60 minutes and when we do that we feel like we have a good chance to win hockey games."
The Okanagan coaching staff includes former NHL defenceman Josh Gorges, who played 783 regular-season games with the San Jose Sharks, Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres.
The Cougars will be at the North Shore Winter Club this coming weekend for games against the Vancouver Northwest Hawks. Game times are 7:45 p.m. (Saturday) and 10:15 a.m. (Sunday).
In other weekend action involving Cariboo Hockey teams, the North Central midget double-A Bobcats hosted East Kootenay in a doubleheader. The Bobcats won 3-0 on Saturday and the teams battled to a 4-4 tie on Sunday.
Meanwhile, at the North Shore Winter Club, the major bantam Cariboo Cougars won a pair of games against the Vancouver Northwest Hawks, 6-1 on Saturday and 3-2 in overtime on Sunday. In Sunday's contest, Cariboo forward Miguel Marques tied the score in the third period and then struck for the overtime winner. The Cougars own a 4-6-0-1 record in league play.
In minor midget play in Richmond, the Cougars beat the Valley West Giants 4-3 on Saturday and fell 5-2 on Sunday. Sunday's result ended a seven-game winning streak for the Cats, who are now 7-3-0-0 on the season.