It's the final weekend of the season for the Prince George Cougars and they would love nothing more than to spoil it for the Kamloops Blazers.
Tonight in Kamloops and Saturday at CN Centre, the Cougars and Blazers will renew their longstanding rivalry in what promises to be a scrap to the finish for both teams.
The Cougars (18-40-5-3) have known for weeks they will miss the Western Hockey League playoffs for the second consecutive season but won't lack for motivation in the two-game set. They want to end what's been a tough season on a high note and relish the chance to derail the Blazers and their playoff ambitions.
The Blazers (27-32-5-2, fourth in B.C. Division) are just one point behind the Kelowna Rockets (27-31-6-2, third in B.C. Division) for the final playoff position in the division. Each team has two games left. The Rockets play the Vancouver Giants tonight in Langley, then meet the first-place Giants in Kelowna on Saturday.
For Mark Lamb, the Cougars interim head coach and general manager, the two weekend games will be one last chance for his returning players to audition for their roles on the team next season. For graduating Cougar 20-year-olds - defenceman Joel Lakusta, centre Josh Curtis and left winger Mike MacLean - this weekend marks the end of their WHL careers.
"It's the last evaluation in a playoff atmosphere," said Lamb. "(The Blazers) are fighting for their lives so they're going to be playing playoff hockey and that's a comparable we can use. For them, it's do or die also, that's the intensity we're going to get this weekend.
"They're a physical team that's on a roll right now (4-1-1 in the last five games). They have a lot of good players and they're a good enough team to be in the playoffs. It's going to be a big challenge."
So far, the Blazers have dominated the Cougars in the season series, winning six of the seven games. That string of success was snapped Feb. 22 in Kamloops, where the Cats won 2-1 in a shootout to end a club-record 17-game losing streak. The only other point Prince George gained happened Jan. 20 at CN Centre when they lost 3-2 in overtime to Kamloops.
"They've really had our number, they've been a hard team to play against and they're a very physical team, which bodes well for ourselves," said Lamb.
The Cougars are coming off a 5-2 win over the Portland Winterhawks last Saturday, after losing 3-2 to the 'Hawks the previous night. That win was the first on home ice for Lamb since he assumed the coaching duties Feb. 6, when Richard Matvichuk was fired.
"That's probably the most complete two games in a row we've played," said Lamb. "We could have had better results, but what I liked about it is we played the same way in the second game, which we did win. The only way you can really sell on what you're trying to sell (as a coach) is to get the win, which we did.
"Our team felt pretty good about themselves but I've seen that happen before too, where we get feeling good about a small things, which you want to, but ultimately you've got to get on a roll and keep playing well. A win is a win, it doesn't matter where it is, every time we go and play a game that's what we're trying to do."
The Cougars have a 30-goal scorer for the first time in two seasons. Josh Maser scored his 30th in Saturday's game against Portland and the just-turned 20-year-old has been the hottest Cougar with 10 goals and 12 points the last 11 games.
"He's made a lot of steps, he's got the mentality that he wants to be a good leader and a good player and it's evident on how he plays," said Lamb. "He's physical, he's getting to the hard areas and I think his confidence is at a high right now. When you put all those things together you get a player like that. He's probably wishing the season was longer, as we all do. In a bad situation he's making the best of it.
"He's playing well enough to get NHL consideration, that's for sure, whether he gets drafted or a tryout. Every night you've got to bring it because there's always somebody watching and I tell that to the whole team. In a situation like that, scouts are watching to see your body language on which direction you're going."
Maser (30-12-42) is three points behind team scoring leader Vladislav Mikhalchuk (22-23-45), who snapped a nine-game pointless streak with a goal and an assist Saturday.
Saturday's game is the Cougars' Fan Appreciation Night. The Cats will hold their annual awards banquet Sunday morning at the Civic Centre.