After 56 days and 13 home games with nothing but losses to choke down, the Prince George Cougars finally found a reason to celebrate.
They beat the Portland Winterhawks 5-2 in front of 3,806 witnesses Saturday at CN Centre and the taste of victory was never sweeter.
A four-goal third period and some solid netminding from Taylor Gauthier salted this one away for the Cougars.
Josh Maser scored twice, his team-leading 29th and 30th goals of the season, to lead the Cougars. They took advantage of an injury-depleted Winterhawks team missing five injured regulars and outshot Portland 49-39.
“It feels amazing to get a win, we’re really happy to just end the season strong here,” said Cougars defenceman Cole Moberg, who had two assists. “Obviously, we’re out of the playoffs right now so we’re playing for pride now and building for next year. None of us want to go home early but that’s the way it is now and we’re just leaving it all out there for the last few games here.”
In an eventful third period, Vladislav Mikhalchuk got the fans out of their seats when he scored his 22nd goal of the season on a Prince George power play. The Cougars scoring leader took a cross-ice feed from Tyson Upper and got down on one knee to connect on a one-timer at the 5:20 mark to give the Cougars a 2-1 lead. That ended a nine-game pointless streak for Mikhalchuk, a 19-year-old from Minsk, Belarus.
“Thanks to Upper, finding me on the power play, I couldn’t believe it,” said Mikhalchuk. “I had lots of chances last few games but couldn’t score. We just played the coach’s system, we played the right way, and we got a win.”
Connor Bowie, a former Winterhawk, added to the total 12:25 in, using linemate Mitch Kohner as a decoy as he finished off the 2-on-1 break by filing away a hard wrister in behind goalie Joel Hofer. Maser made it 4-1 on another Cougars’ power play when he got to the rebound after a shot from Moberg bounced off Hofer’s leg with 5:28 left on the clock.
Just before that goal, Gauthier came up with the save of the game, stretching out his leg t deny WHL scoring leader Joachim Blichfeld on a shorthanded breakaway.
“When I saw him on the breakaway I knew I was going to have make a pretty good save and I wasn’t too sure what he was going to do and relied on the instincts a little bit,” said Gauthier. “I saw him make that one move and he committed to that side and made a big save.”
About a minute after Maser scored his first of the night, the ‘Hawks created a scramble in front of Gauthier and Cross Hanas dumped in the loose puck to make it a two-goal game. Portland got Hofer off the ice for the extra skater wit about two minutes left and came close a couple times but Maser ended the suspense, finding the empty net with a shot from centre ice. The Houston native has 10 goals and two assists in his last 11 games.
Gauthier (14-29-4-2) had been stuck at 13 wins ever since Feb. 22, the day the Cougars ended their team-record 17-game losing streak with a 2-1 shootout win in Kamloops.
“We’ve been playing really well the past couple games, they just haven’t gone our way and last night I felt we derived a better fate than we got,” said Gauthier. “(Saturday) we really pulled it together, had a full 60 minutes and worked hard right to the final buzzer and came up on the right side of things.
“Obviously it would feel the same whether it’s last-place team or a powerhouse like Portland but it does feel nicer to play with those big guys and compete with them two straight games. It shows we’ve got potential to be one of the top teams in the league and I think we showed it this weekend.”
Portland beat the Cougars 3-2 Friday night, scoring all three goals on power plays.
Saturday’s win was only the second in the last 25 games for the Cougars (18-40-5-3) who have just two games left and will miss the playoffs for the second-straight season. The Winterhawks (39-20-3-3) remain third overall in the Western Conference and have second place in the U.S. Division wrapped up.
“We’re depleted right now and it’s tough but give the Cougars credit, they worked hard and kept the same gameplan as last night and I thought they played a good game as well last night,” said Winterhawks head coach Mike Johnston, who dressed five rookies on defence Saturday. “We just have to get through this injury bug.
“Prince George had the jump early in both games. They had a lot of energy, they came hard, they backchecked us hard on the attack, didn’t give us a lot off the rush and their goaltender was good.”
The Cougars had tons of chances in the first period but Hofer was on his game. After going scoreless in the opening 20 minutes of the rematch each team found the net once in the second period. Both goals came as a result of defensive-zone turnovers.
Reece Newkirk started it when he picked the puck off the stick of Cougars defenceman Rhett Rhinehart just inside the blueline. Newkirk circled behind the net and left the puck for Clay Hanas, who carried it into the corner and let go a low wrister along the ice that slipped through the legs of Gauthier.
The Cougars got that one back 8:31 into the period and it was Crossley, the defenceman-turned-winger, who found the net. Mike MacLean grazed the goal post and kept his feet moving to force Jared Freadrich to rush a clearing attempt and regained the puck in the right-wing circle. MacLean spotted Crossley breaking for the net on the far side and Crossley went low with his shot under Hofer’s blocker for his third goal of the season.
LOOSE PUCKS: Former Cougar centre Justin Almeida has signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now in his second full season with the Moose Jaw Warriors, the just-turned 20-year-old native of Kitimat was drafted last summer in the fifth-round (129th overall) by the Penguins. Almeida celebrated his contract with a two-goal, one-assist effort Saturday in a 6-1 Warriors’ win at home over the Regina Pats in Moose Jaw. He now has 30 goals and 70 points for 100 points in 60 games. On Jan. 5, 2017, the Cougars traded Almeida, forward Yan Khomenko, and second- and fifth-round bantam picks for forward Nikita Popugaev… Red Deer Rebels coach Brent Sutter joined the WHL’s 500 club Saturday in Red Deer where the Rebels beat the Kootenay Ice 8-4. It was Sutter’s 50th career win as a WHL head coach… The Cougars will finish off the season next weekend with a home-and-home series with the Kamloops Blazers Friday in Kamloops and Saturday at CN Centre. The Blazers are seven points behind Seattle for the final wild-card playoff spot and have four games left.
Saturday’s WHL summary
Winterhawks 2 at Cougars 5
Penalties – De Jong Por (slashing) 0:22, Crossley PG (tripping) 3:13, McLean PG (tripping) 14:55.
1. Portland , Cl.Hanas 7 (Newkirk) 3:22
2. Prince George, Crossley 3 (MacLean) 8:31
Penalties – Leppard PG (delay of game) 10:12, Kvasnica Por (interference) 14:04.
3. Prince George, Mikhalchuk 22 (Upper, Moberg) 5:20 (pp)
4. Prince George, Bowie 3 (Sander) 12:25
5. Prince George, Maser 29 (Moberg, Mikhalchuk) 14:32 (pp)
6. Portland, Cl.Hanus 8 (Paterson, Dureau) 15:48
7. Prince George, Maser 30, 18:58 (en)
Penalties – Cicek Por (tripping) 4:54, Freadrich Por (tripping) 13:12.
Shots on goal by
Portland 11 12 16 -39
Prince George19 17 13 -49
Goal – Portland, Hofer (L,14-28-2-1); Prince George, Gauthier (W,14-29-4-2).
Power plays – Por: 0-4; PG: 2-4.
Referees – Fraser Lawrence, Nick Panter; Linesmen – Brett Mackey, Tyler Garden.
Attendance – 2,806.
Scratches – Portland: D Kade Nolan (upper body, day-to-day), D Matt Quigley (upper body, day-today), C Cody Glass (upper body, day-to-day), D John Ludvig (lower body, day-to-day), C Seth Jarvis (upper body, day-today); Prince George: C Liam Ryan (Healthy), C Ethan Browne (concussion, week-to-week), C Ilijah Colina (returned home for personal reasons).