A hot goalie can carry a team deep into the playoffs.
Think back to 2012 and what Laurent Brossoit did for the Edmonton Oil Kings, or 2013 when the Portland Winterhawks rode Mac Curruth to the WHL championship, or last year, when Tristan Jarry backstopped the Oil Kings to their second Ed Chynoweth Cup in three years.
They all got hot at the right time.
That time is now for Ty Edmonds. While nobody expects his Prince George Cougars to run the table and win their first league playoff title, if their 18-year-old sophomore goalie keeps playing like he has the past six weeks, he gives the Cougars a chance to pull off a shocker and beat the Victoria Royals in a best-of-seven series, which starts tonight in Victoria.
"Without quality goaltending you don't go far and since February 1 he's provided that," said Cougars head coach Mark Holick. "He's battled through some injuries and sickness, a lot of stuff we don't make public, and the kid's competed. He had to play a lot (in his rookie season) and I think that benefited him this year."
Edmonds was the Cougars' most valuable player down the stretch to deliver them into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. In February he went 5-2-1-1 with a 2.85 goals-against average and .925 save percentage and followed that up in March with a 5-2-0-1 run, compiling a 3.51 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.
"It's amazing what he's done for us," said Cougars veteran winger Jari Erricson. "Ty has been the backbone of this team throughout the year really, he's taken criticism and he's used it all (for inspiration) - he's been everything to us. Sick or healthy, he's always found a way to battle through and come up big for us."
Collectively, the Cougars have been rather hot lately, going 7-3-0-1 in their last 11 games to climb into third place in the B.C. Division, 15 points behind the Royals, who won six of their last 10 heading into playoffs. The Cougars have made their 12-game losing streak in January a distant memory. They turned it on in February and went 11-6-1-1 in their last 19 games.
"It was our goal all season to get our team into playoffs and after what we went through in January it certainly didn't look promising," said Holick. "So for us to overcome that and for our players to dig their heels in and get their game turned around like they did, the credit has to go to them for staying with it.
"It's important for a lot of our kids to get in here and get some playoff experience. We don't just want to make the playoffs and be out of here in four games. We want to make sure we have a good series and give Victoria all they can handle and see what happens."
The Cougars' 19-year-old captain Sam Ruopp, like most of his teammates, will be playing his first WHL playoff game tonight and he likes how his team matches up with the Royals.
"For a lot of us, this is our first time coming into this and we're ready to go to war," said Ruopp, a second-year defenceman. "It's going to be a good test for us - they're a tough physical team, and we have to stay disciplined and don't retaliate. We've been doing a better job of that of late, and we have to stick to our systems and we should be good.
"We're both hard-nosed teams that like to work and whenever we've played them it's been close games. I'm looking forward to seeing how it is. We can't sit back, we have to get on them early in their own barn."
Ruopp has been paired with Tomas Andrlik and they've been an effective duo as the Cougars' top shutdown defencemen, along with Kirk Bear. They'll be hard-pressed taking on a team that had five players with 20 or more goals and eight players with 55 or more points.
The ever-mobile Josh Connolly has stabilized the point position and improved the Cats' power play since arriving in a January trade from Kamloops and that's taken much of the pressure off Joe Carvalho and Tate Olson to be the offensive catalysts on the back end. Five of Connolly's 13 goals and eight of his 54 points this season came in games against Victoria.
The Royals have plenty of options on defence to play against the Cougars top offensive forwards - Jansen Harkins, Chase Witala, Zach Pochiro, Brad Morrison, Jari Erricson and David Soltes. Royals rearguards Travis Brown, Chaz Reddekopp, Ryan Gagnon and Joe Hicketts (12 goals, 64 points) are all good at their jobs. Only six teams allowed fewer goals than Victoria and goaltenders Coleman Vollrath (who had 28 wins and six shutouts) and Justin Paulic have been standouts.
"Their D are big and strong and move pretty well and Hicketts drives the bus back there," said Holick. "Everything runs through him and we just have to stay out of the penalty box. They have a good power play with guys who can score on two units and we'll have to continue our disciplined play. We had some good games down the stretch where we didn't take a lot of penalties and have to continue that mindset and that will give us a chance."
Brandon Magee has been a Cougar-killer over his four-year WHL career. In 36 games against the Cats he has 17 goals and 34 points (including six goals and four assists in just six games this season). Magee plays on a line with former Cougar Alex Forsberg and Austin Carroll, who also picked up 10 points in head-to-head games. That trio will be closely watched by the Cougars' checking line - Kody McDonald, Colby McAuley and Tyler Mrkonjic - which has had great success lately generating offence. With Aaron Macklin out with an upper-body injury that might keep him out for the next two months, McAuley replaced him on that line two weeks ago and has made a seamless transition.
Centre Haydn Hopkins (wrist injury) is the only other Cougar not available for the Victoria series. The six-foot-three, 215-pound Carroll, who just signed with the Calgary Flames, is listed as day-to-day, coming off a lower-body injury. He's the only sidelined Royal.
Series prediction: Royals in seven.