Big guns stepping up for Cougars

Back-to-back wins over the Vancouver Giants at CN Centre over the weekend proved a few things to the Prince George Cougars.
Ty Edmonds is well on his way to becoming one of the top goalies in the WHL.  
Sam Ruopp and Wil Tomchuk are solid as the rock of Gibraltar on the back end, while Joseph Carvalho is showing he has what it takes to be the go-to instigator of defensive zone breakouts and quarterback the Cats' power play.
And in each of their 2-1 victories, the Cougars showed their beleaguered special teams aren't so bad after all. Not with the big line of Chase Witala-Jansen Harkins-Jari Erricson continuing to produce timely goals, and they were at their opportunistic best Saturday, scoring twice on the team's only two power play chances.
The winner came 12:32 into the third period and it started with Harkins winning the face-off in the Giants' zone just after Vancouver centre Carter Popoff was banished for checking Tomchuk from behind. The puck went back to Carvalho on the left point and his shot went wide and bounced off the end boards to Witala, stationed at the post, and he banked it in off Giants goalie Cody Porter.
Slovakian import David Soltes tied it with his sixth of the season, 14 seconds into the period, a point shot on a pass from Carvalho while the Cougars were on a power play.
"It was a hard game, the Giants are a good team, but we got two goals on the power play," said Soltes. "Ty Edmonds made some big saves."
The Giants had two power-play chances in the final three minutes of the game. With Porter on the bench for the extra skater, they had a brief 6-on-3 advantage when Colby McAuley got caught cross-checking, but the Giants couldn't score. Edmonds took away a sure-goal on a one-timer from Joel Hamilton, which came right after a mad scramble ended with Edmonds poking the puck away from Thomas Foster, the Giants most dangerous shooter all night.
The Cougars trailed 1-0 nine minutes into the game on a power-play goal from Matt Bellerive, whose shot went right through Edmonds' legs, one of the few mistakes the 18-year-old made in busy 36-save effort that earned him his sixth win of the season.
Outshot 17-7 in the first period, the Cougars looked sluggish at the start but reversed the trend in the middle period, directing 20 shots at Porter. On most nights, a 34-save effort in his WHL debut would have been good enough for Porter to win, but Edwards stole the spotlight, just like he did Friday.
"Their goalie was first star both games and rightly so, we thought that was the difference in the weekend," said Giants head coach Troy Ward. "We got good goaltending when we needed it and their goaltending was just a notch better because we obviously had some really good looks at scoring."
Edmonds was spectacular at times and that drew loud cheers from the 2,469 in attendance. Not only did he take away the Giants' shooting angles but with his lateral movement, quick reflexes and several well-timed poke checks he bailed himself out of precarious positions numerous times.
"It's just been a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance, it's definitely not easy getting scored on a lot and not having good stats and letting the team down and you take it to heart," said Edmonds.
"I did a lot of mental and physical preparation and it paid off for sure. Everyone bought into the system. Guys were blocking shots, they were being dedicated and did what we had to do. It wasn't just me."
Witala's goal left him with 14 points and Harkins kept pace with two assists to move into the top three in WHL scoring with 15 points in 10 games. Erricson leads the Cats with seven goals.
Another bright spot for the Cougars was their special teams play. They scored three power -play goals in the two games to jump from 20th overall to 15th in the WHL, successful 16.3 per cent of the time. They allowed just one power-play goal in 10 Giants' chances the two games but are still dead-last in that department, working at a 69.8 per cent success rate.
The Triple-M checking line of Cody McDonald, Aaron Macklin and Tyler Mrkonjic, which has shown its willingness to stand in front of shots and take a hit to create a turnover has also shown its offensive upside. Coach Mark Holick has started using them on the power play lately and they've been winning games ever since.
"It feels awesome, I felt we went out there and we played great and we really had to dig our noses in both games," said Macklin. "Eddy held us in there both games and it was great to see him standing on his head but it was a full team effort. Our power play really turned the game around and helped us win it."
The Cougars' power-play success starts with quick players like the five-foot-seven, 181-pound Carvalho, who already has eight assists in 10 games.
"When you're the size he is you have to move your feet and play the game with your legs and your head, and ever since that homestand with Kelowna he's been lights-out for us," said Holick.
Holick said there was no denying the crowd factor had an inspirational effect on his team.
"I thought we deserved better after 40 minutes but we talked about getting the first one in the third and if we could do that the crowd would get energized, we'd get energized and feed off that, and that's kind of what happened," said Holick. "They certainly helped us and it's good to see a crowd of that size again. The guys love it and it created energy for us and our power play bailed us out."
Winners of five of their last six games, the Cougars (6-4-0-0) have now crept to within a point of the Kamloops Blazers for second place in the B.C. Division. Taking four points away from a divisional opponent means more to the Cougars this year now that the WHL has changed its playoff format. Only the top three teams in each division as well as two conference wild cards make the postseason and the Cougars desperately want to end that drought, having missed the playoffs the past three seasons.
The Cougars lost forward Cal Babych in the second period of Friday's game when he collided with Giants  defenceman Tyler Morrison and hit his head against the side board. He did not return and was scratched for Saturday's game. Mrkonjic has his visor smashed into his nose in his fight with Foster  late in the first period Saturday and did not finish the game.
The Cougars are on the road this weekend in Seattle on Friday and Vancouver on Saturday.

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