After getting mobbed and tackled on the ice by his Prince George Cougar teammates celebrating their 4-1 win over the Kelowna Rockets, Tyler Brennan still had a couple rituals to go through before he could sit back and reflect on his first career Western Hockey League win as a 16-year-old goalie.
One of them was taking a curtain call in front of the home fans at CN Centre as the first star of the game Saturday after he stopped 26 of 27 Rockets shots. The other was set up by his teammates waiting for him in a darkened dressing room about to reveal a big surprise that came with a loud cheer.
“I walked in, all the lights were out and I just got ambushed by the players,” said Brennan. “You can’t ever re-create that, it was just insane.”
Brennan’s first start was his first win and Cougar goalie Taylor Gauthier made sure to retrieve the puck from the official at the end of the game. Cougars head coach Mark Lamb told Brennan in the morning skate he’d be in the starting lineup.
“What a feeling, I can’t even describe it,” said Brennan. “I didn’t imagine that was ever going to happen. You have to prepare a lot differently than when you’re not playing and I just focused all day and got the job done. I never thought I’d be the one to get the first win. It’s crazy.”
Brennan and his six-foot-three, 190-pound bulk takes up a lot of net. He set the tone early with 11 saves in the first period and the shots seemed to get increasingly difficult as the game progressed, facing a potent Rockets’ lineup studded with a handful of high-profile NHL draft picks. The Winnipeg native had already robbed Tampa Bay Lightning first-rounder Nolan Foote of goal with a glove save while the Cougars were on the penalty kill when Brennan came up with two more sharp saves to deny Jake Lee and Leif Mattson. But near the end of the penalty Foote got open late in the power play and Pavel Novak found him and the quick one-timer beat Brennan low for the only goal he would allow.
The Rockets offered just five shots in the third period but one of them was his best save of the night. Mark Liwiski got the puck in the high slot and let it rip and Brennan’s reflexes fired and he shot out his arm to swat the puck out of harm’s way with less than five minutes to play.
“That basically capped it off there and then we got the two empty-netters,” said Brennan. “That one really settled it in and said, we’re going to win the game. To know some of those guys on that team were NHL draft picks and to keep them to one goal, it’s a surreal feeling. Everyone stepped up and did their role and we got the job done.”
The Cougars were without the services of injured veteran forwards Jackson Leppard, Ilijah Colina and Ethan Browne, and Cole Moberg, one of their top defencemen, and the younger, lesser-known guys on the team took advantage of that extra icetime and picked up the slack in a night of firsts.
Ethan Samson, a 16-year-old rookie defenceman from North Delta, went to work on the power play and crept deep in the Kelowna to score his first WHL goal on a perfect cross-ice feed from fellow first-year Filip Koffer. That gave the Cougars a 2-0 lead 9:37 into the second period and it stood up as the winning goal.
“It was a special one, it was the game-winning goal, something you always dream of,” sad Samson. “It was just a power-play setup, I thought Koffer had a great look, back door and it just all worked out. It was a big goal for us, it was nice to get our first win. (Brennan) was just solid out there, he didn’t make many mistakes, he was talking and that helped the team.”
Samson, a third-round bantam pick of the Cougars in 2018, played last season at Delta Hockey Academy and he made the team with a strong training camp, one of four 16-year-olds now playing for the Cougars.
“It’s hard to do, I’m lucky I’m getting chances and I’m playing well right now,” he said.
Late in the first period, on another Cougars’ power play, Koffer was in the first goal of the game for his first WHL point, assisting on pointman Jack Sander’s first goal of the season, a wrister that bounced off the post and the blocker of goalie Roman Basran before it went into the net.
But the best was yet to come in the dying seconds of the game for Koffer, an 18-year-old native Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic. Nineteen seconds after Josh Maser scored the third Cougars' goal into an empty net from centre ice, Koffer was off to the races facing a gaping net after stripping the puck away from Nolan Foote just outside the Cougars’ blueline. He used his speed to avoid two more Rockets and floated in a high backhander for his first WHL goal to seal the deal for the Cougars.
The Cougars’ record improved to 1-4-0-1 and they still rank last in the Western Conference. Kelowna (4-2-1-0) remained atop the B.C. Division standings.
Cougars assistant coach Jason Smith said his team has been playing well and working hard since the season began. Three of their four losses were one-goal games until the late stages and that’s an encouraging sign for the coaching staff.
“We haven’t had the results we’d like up to this point in the year but with their work ethic and their commitment to do things right and playing as a team is very good, whether it’s practice or games,” said Smith. “We just need to continue those habits to turn things the right way.
“(Brennan) had a great first regular season game in this league and it’s a credit to the work he’s put in in the past couple weeks since training camp ended. He’s young and he’s talented and he’s got a work ethic that’s going to give him an opportunity to have success.”