How's that for a welcome back.
After nearly six weeks away from home at the end of their longest road trip of the season, the Prince George Cougars got reacquainted with familiar surroundings and friendly faces, then got down to business kicking the stuffing out of the Kelowna Rockets.
They laid a 7-2 beating on their WHL B.C. Division rivals, serving notice they're creeping up on them in the standings.
Friday's win at CN Centre was the third in the past four games for Prince George and fifth in seven games head-to-head this season against Kelowna. It improved the Cougars' season record to 15-22-1-2, leaving them just five points back of the Rockets (17-20-3-1), who hold down the third and final playoff spot in the division.
Josh Maser and Cole Moberg each had a two-goal game. Ethan Browne, Matej Toman and Jack Sander also scored for the guys in red and black. Browne drew two assists and his linemate Vladislav Mikhalchuk finished with three assists.
Leif Mattson and Nolan Foote scored for the Rockets.
"The (Christmas) break couldn't have happened at a better time for us, since the break we've been really good," said Cougars head coach Richard Matvichuk. "A couple games we probably deserved a better fate and didn't get it but tonight the guys came out like gangbusters. We've got to find a way to bottle that first period and get ready for (tonight's rematch).
"Tonight they had five shots in the first period and five shots in the second period - our guys are playing hard and they're sacrificing, blocking shots. You can teach X's and O's but these guys are starting to figure it out and it's fun to watch."
Maser gave the home crowd of 2,577 a reason cheer 4:39 into the game when he popped in a rebound for his 14th of the season to open the scoring. Mikhalchuk picked up the puck and put it back for pointman Moberg and Maser got the bounce after goalie Roman Basran stopped Moberg's shot.
Midway through the period, on a Cougars' power play, Browne connected for his seventh goal of the season. He took a cross-ice feed from Mikhalchuk, waited for Basran to drop to his knees and lifted a high wrister in over the goalie's glove.
Toman, a 17-year-old import from Belarus, corralled a bouncing puck in the slot and wired a shot in past Basran to add to the count with his fourth career WHL goal. After allowing three goals on 11 shots in 12:34 of playing time, the 17-year-old Basran was called over to the bench and Rockets head coach Adam Foote replaced him with James Porter.
It didn't take long for the Cougars to dent Porter's armour. Maser potted his second of the game on his team's second power-play chance at the 15:17 mark. Browne took the shot from the face-off circle and the puck ricocheted in off the leg of Maser standing in front.
Leading 4-0 heading into the intermission, that marked the first time the Cats have scored four goals at home against the Rockets since Oct. 5, 2012.
After building a 17-5 shot advantage through 20 minutes the Cougars kept the pedal down. As good as they were offensively in the first period, the Cats were equally effective neutering the Kelowna attack, holding the Rockets to just five shots until the second period was 13:31 old.
Taylor Gauthier had very little work to do protecting the Cougars' goal. Aside from a difficult standup save in the first period to deny Ethan Ernst on a 2-on-1 chance, Gauthier wasn't severely tested. The Rockets were their own worst enemies, missing nets on the rare opportunities they generated good looks at the net, like when Connor Bruggen-Cate stole the puck from Rhett Rhinehart and broke in alone but put his shot high and wide.
The Rockets scored on their first power-play chance with 35 seconds left in the second period. Mike MacLean, the Cougars' six-foot-seven winger, was serving a questionable boarding call when Mattson pounced on a rebound and dumped it into the net, one of only five shots the Rockets had in the middle frame.
The teams traded goals in the third period. Sander scored his first of the season on a screened shot that beat Porter and Foote countered with his team-leading 21st for the Rockets. Moberg finished off his three-point night to cap the scoring when he got down on one knee to get his body weight into a slapper from the face-off circle on an accurate feed from Jackson Leppard. Cats' captain Josh Curtis drew the second assist, his first point since Nov. 23. The seven goals were a season high for the Cougars.
LOOSE PUCKS: The same teams meet tonight (7 p.m. start) on Country Night and the Cougars will be wearing denim-look jerseys that will be available to fans after the game in a silent auction. Former Cats forward Evan Fuller, who rode bulls professionally after he left the WHL, will be on hand in the concourse to offer tips to fans who want to try their luck on a mechanical bull... Mikhalchuk was picked as the Cougars Jim's Clothes Closet player of the month for December. In those 10 games the 19-year-old from Minsk, Belarus, scored seven goals and had two assists and he came into the game leading the Cougars in goals, assists and points... The Cougars will keep 17-year-old defenceman Cole Beamin for the rest of the season. Called up Dec. 31 from the Nipawin Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, the six-foot-four, 209-pound Beamin had two goals in 28 games this season for the Hawks. To make room for him on the roster the Cougars assigned 16-year-old defenceman Tyson Phare to the Delta Hockey Academy of the Canadian Sport School Hockey League... Cougar fans can skate with the team Sunday afternoon from 1-3 p.m. at the College Heights Community Association outdoor rink.