Playoffs are still a possibility for the Prince George Cougars but the stars are going to have to align over the next month to make that a reality.
Down to their last 17 games of a 68-game Western Hockey League schedule, the Cougars need to put together a winning streak and hope the Seattle Thunderbirds falter in the homestretch drive to the finish.
The Cats are nine points behind the T-birds for the second wild-card position in the Western Conference and have two games this weekend to try to make some headway, starting with a Saturday night encounter at CN Centre with the Calgary Hitmen. They'll also host the Red Deer Rebels in a holiday Monday matinee.
After beating Seattle twice in Prince George last week, the Cougars lost two critical road games, falling 5-2 Saturday in Vancouver and 2-1 Sunday in Seattle.
"We were in both those games," said Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb. "There's some things we''ve got to clean up to win. The game in Seattle it was a 2-1 game and their first goal was a foot offside, they missed a call there, and that's how close it is right now. I'm not blaming the (loss) on that, you need to score some goals. But we played well enough to win both those games. We just have to keep chipping away at it and take care of our own business."
The Thunderbirds have tough weekend ahead. On Friday they played the Silvertips in Everett and lost 2-1, Seattle faces Vancouver in a home-and-home series Saturday and Monday.
The Hitmen (29-18-1-4, fourth in Central Division) are solidly entrenched in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and the Cougars could have their hands full trying to contain the league's ninth-ranked offence, averaging 3.38 goals per game. Calgary has won seven of its last 10 games.
"They haven't really got momentum all year long, they're a highly-touted team that's kind of finding its way and now they're really starting to play well and it's going to be a tough challenge," said Lamb.
The Hitmen, starting a five-game tour of the B.C. Division, are coming off an 8-1 pounding of the Regina Pats Wednesday night in Calgary. Six-foot-three, 221-pound centre Mark Kastelic, a fifth-round pick of the Ottawa Senators in 2019, had four goals and an assist in that game and now has 30 goals and 54 points in 46 games.
"He's a man-child, a 20-year-old that's physical and big and can do a lot of things, they have a lot of skill on their lines," said Lamb.
The Hitmen have made it a habit of making the playoffs in the 25 years since they joined the league as an expansion team in 1995. They missed the postseason in their first two seasons and have just two misses since then. Calgary won its first WHL championship in 1999, the fourth year of the Hitmen's existence and repeated as league champs in 2010, after reaching the final the previous year.
They have two other high-scoring pivots. Riley Stotts (Toronto Maple Leafs, third round, 2019) leads the team with 57 points, including 22 goals, and Carson Focht (Vancouver Canucks, fifth round, 2019) has 27 goals and 44 points in 49 games.
Another forward to watch is 16-year-old Sean Tschigerl, a six-foot, 179-pound left winger selected by Calgary fourth overall in the 2018 bantam draft. He has four goals and 12 points in 45 games.
The Canucks hold the NHL rights to Jett Woo, a 19-year-old defenceman, their second-round pick in 2018 (37th overall) who leads all Hitmen blueliners with seven goals and 35 points. The Hitmen be without one of their top defenders, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Egor Zamula, out three-to-four months with a lower-body injury.
Brayden Peters, a 17-year-old goalie, has been sharing the load in the Hitmen nets equally with 18-year-old Jack McNaughton. Peters (2.43 goals-against average, .910 save percentage) has slightly better stats than McNaughton (3.12 GAA, .882 SV%).
Cougars LW Nikita Krivokrasov is back after missing seven games with a knee injury he sustained Jan. 24 in a game against Kamloops. Until he got hurt, the 19-year-old son of former NHL all-star forward Sergei Krivokrasov had four goals and three assists in the 23 games he played for the Cougars since arriving in a trade from the Tri-City Americans.
"When he went down that was a big hole in our lineup, he brings a lot of energy, some physicality and he brings penalty-killing and versatility," said Lamb. "We've really missed him."
C Ethan Browne, who was sick for Sunday's game, will be back in the lineup Saturday. Hitmen D Andrew Viggars (upper body) won't play Saturday.
LOOSE PUCKS: The Cougars-Rebels game on Family Day, Monday is a complete sellout. The game starts at 2 p.m. and all 5,971 tickets in the CN Centre stands has been distributed free to fans, paid for by CN Rail. CN has held the naming rights for the building formerly known as the Prince George Multiplex for 10 years... One lucky fan who attends Saturday's game will win a trip for four to Disneyland, a McDonald's restauraunt-sponsored door prize valued at close to $12,000. It includes airfare, a six-night hotel stay and five-day Park Hopper passes. The second door prize is a Vancouver Canucks getaway for two with airfare, a one-night hotel stay and club seats for the Canucks -Vegas Golden Knights game on Saturday, April 4th. "This Disneyland trip is one of the biggest door prizes we’ve ever given away, and our second door prize of the Canucks getaway is a great giveaway too,” said Cougars vice-president, business Andy Beesley. “Brian Boresky, the owner of our local McDonald's, along with his store manager Eric Simmons have been fantastic to work with, and our team is proud to be a partner with such outstanding contributors to our community.”