Cougars host high-flying Blazers this weekend

For only the second time in the past six weeks, the Prince George Cougars have been home sleeping in their own beds prepping for a weekend opponent on CN Centre ice.

It's been a long time coming for the Cougars and their fans who are in for treat this weekend watching the Cougars try to defuse the highest-scoring team in the Western Hockey League.

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The Kamloops Blazers, owners of the league's third-best record, are on an impressive roll as they take on the Cats Friday and Saturday nights. The Blazers (30-11-2-1) have won all eight of their games in 2020 and sit second in the Western Conference record with 63 points, double that of the Cougars (12-24-3-4), who are eight points behind Seattle for the second wild-card playoff spot.

Kamloops trounced the Tri-City Americans 12-3 and 9-0 in Kamloops last Friday and Saturday, then went to Langley to complete a perfect weekend where they shut out the Vancouver Giants 4-0 on Sunday.

"You have to play really smart when you're playing a team like that," said Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb. "You have to manage the puck and do a lot of good things to beat them and we've beaten them a couple times, which doesn't mean anything at all.

"We have to play defensively and I've been saying that since Day 1. We just have to limit our mistakes and play strong defensively and play physical."

The Blazers have scored a league-leading 191 goals in 44 games, a per-game average of 4.34. That's 99 more goals than the Cougars, who have 92 goals in 43 games (2.14 average).

The Blazers and Cougars last faced each other Nov. 22-23 at CN Centre and Prince George won both games, 4-3 and 5-3, the only time this season they've swept a weekend doubleheader. That came a week after a 1-0 Cougars' loss in Kamloops in their only other meeting this season.

Three Blazers are in the top-five in league scoring. RW Zane Franklin leads the league with 72 points in 44 games, including 25 goals. LW Orrin Centazzo has a team-leading 33 goals to go with 30 assists and 63 points. C Connor Zary, who tried out for Canada's world junior team and played last week in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, is fifth in the WHL with 59 points and has scored 28 goals.

The Blazers acquired LW Ryan Hughes from Saskatoon two games into the season and he's produced 18 goals and 49 points. Another early-season swap that's paid off for Kamloops was the move to acquire former Cougar defenceman Max Martin. The 20-year-old, who was a key component last year in the playoffs for the Prince Albert Raiders in their run to the WHL championship, has eight goals and 38 assists for 46 points, all compiled in his 38 games with the Blazers.

The Blazers rely on 17-year-old goalie Dylan Garand, who also played in the Top Prospects Game. He sports a 24-9-1-1 record with a 2.23 goals-against average and .921 save percentage with three shutouts.

Cougar fans will get their first looks at newly-acquired LW Jonny Hooker and D Majid Kaddoura. Hooker was picked up in a trade with Brandon which sent RW Reid Perepeluk to the Wheat Kings, while Kaddoura was sent from Saskatoon in a deadline deal that moved D Rhett Rhinehart to the Blades.

Hooker made a great first impression with his new bosses when he scored in each of his first two games as a Cougar, a 2-1 overtime loss in Prince Albert and a 4-1 win in Saskatoon. Kaddoura notched his first goal for the Cats in their 5-1 loss to Winnipeg. That loss to the Ice and a 4-0 stinker the following night in Brandon were the low points of the trip for the Cougars, who started a 5-4 shootout loss in Regina and finished it with a 3-2 win last Friday over the Moose Jaw Warriors. Despite injuries and illnesses they ended up 2-2-1-1, taking six points out of a possible 12.

"The trade deadline was the Friday when we played P.A. and there was lots of stuff going on but what I did learn was the guys were great with all the distractions going on," said Lamb. "Any time you have a trade deadline guys it's a distraction because the players, it's their lives, and they just played right through it."

Both trades brought younger (2001-born) players than what the Cougars gave up. They sent their third-round bantam pick in 2020 along with Rhinehart to reel in Kaddoura, Saskatoon's first-rounder in 2020 and Jayden Watson, a 16-year-old forward now playing junior A in Grande Prairie.

"It's was a trade for the future, we're still in the building part of this organization plus we're trying to stay competitive," said Lamb. "Johnny is looking for a bigger opportunity, which he's getting, and so is Kaddoura. We think they can help us right now and in the future and we're really happy with what we see right now."

Lamb admitted it was especially difficult parting with Perepeluk, who has been in Prince George since 2015, the year the Cougars drafted him. He spent two seasons with the Cariboo Cougars in Prince George where his family lives before making the jump to the WHL. His ties with Lamb go back to when he was playing bantam hockey in Yorkton, Sask., while Lamb was coach and GM of the Swift Current Broncos.

"I've known Reid for so long and know what this team means to him," said Lamb. "He's a heart-and-soul guy and a fan favourite and it was really hard. That was a total hockey trade. They wanted that physicality, which we still miss, and Johnny can bring a bit of both (brawn and skill) and he's a year younger."

Cougars C Brendan Boyle is sidelined day-to-day with an upper-body injury and LW Blake Eastman is dealing with an illness this week. The Blazers will be without Tyler Carpendale, a deadline-day acquisition who played two WHL seasons with Seattle. He hurt his shoulder in the preseason and has yet to play a game this season. He won't be back for another four to six weeks.

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