Garand, Blazers stonewall Cougars

Much has been made about the Kamloops Blazers’ volatile offence that’s run roughshod over their WHL opponents this season.

They rolled into town on an eight-game winning streak and were coming off a three-win weekend in which they scored 25 goals. As they good as they have been at scoring goals, the Blazers have been equally efficient keeping the puck out of their own net.

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Their 3-0 victory Friday over the Prince George Cougars was the third-straight shutout for the Blazers, who are enjoying the view from their perch atop the B.C. Division.

Dylan Garand blocked all 27 shots he faced to stake the Blazers (31-11-2-1) to their ninth-straight win.

“I don’t get shutouts very often (that was his fourth of the season) and it was nice to get that one,” said the 17-year-old Garand. “I think after the first period our d-men really shut it down and played really well in front of me and made it easier. It makes it easier to get a shutout when the puck’s not in your end.

“Our d-men have been a big part of our recent success lately. Everything starts with the d-zone and we shut it down and get to go play offence.”

The Blazers’ first-strike capability has been deadly for WHL opponents this season. They’ve won 26 of 31 games in which they’ve open the scoring, They got on the board first,  9:09 into the game. Josh Pillar dug the puck out of crowd in front of Taylor Gauthier and spun off a high wrister that found the top corner over Gauthier’s glove, the first of two goals on the night for the 17-year-old from Warman, Sask.

The Cougars had a great chance to get that one back a few ticks later when Filip Koffer fed a crisp lead pass to Josh Maser to spring the Cougar captain on a breakaway. But before Maser could get a shot away he was caught by the Blazers defenceman Montana Onyebuchi.

The Blazers’ first-place swagger really showed in the second period and Gauthier was the story, making a series of nimble saves to keep it a one-goal game. The Blazers almost scored with 30 seconds left in the period when pointman Libor Zabransky’s shot got through Gauthier’s legs. The puck was spinning on edge for a second or two right on the goal line before Connor Bowie was able to clear it to safety.

In the third period the Blazers doubled their lead 4:46 in and Pillar was the triggerman for 11th this season. Gauthier made a sharp save off Ryan Hughes but the puck squirted loose behind his outstretched back, leaving an easy tap-in for Pillar.

Caeden Bankier added an empty-netter with 3:45 left.

Gauthier was the best Cougar on the ice, stopping 40 pucks as the Cats were outshot 43-27. The Cougar goalie took a bit of bashing in the first period. First he got run into by Connor Zary in a collision that sent the goalie’s helmet flying. Because there was head contact and Zary did not try to avoid him, the high-scoring Blazer forward was handed a five-minute major and game misconduct. Not long after, WHL scoring leader Zane Franklin was sent off for two minutes for crashing into Gauthier’s body.

That gave the Cougars a two-man advantage for a full two minutes. But the Cougars’ power play faltered against the league’s best penalty-killing team, producing just one shot on goal and no great scoring chances, a critical failure for a team that swept the Blazers in a two-game set in Prince George in November.

“Today we kind of struggled with getting pucks and bodies to the net at the same time and obviously out power play, with the 5-on-3 there, you’ve got to score,” said Cougars defenceman Cole Moberg.. “We didn’t and it cost us.”

The Cougars (12-25-3-4) lost ground on the Seattle Thunderbirds, who gained a point in an overtime loss Friday in Kelowna. The Cougars trail Seattle by nine points for the second wild-card playoff spot.

LOOSE PUCKS: The rematch is set for Saturday at 7 p.m… The Cougars lost RW Nikita Krivokrasov to an apparent knee injury after LW Jonny Hooker lost his balance and slid into the 19-year-old Russian, who had to be helped off favouring his right leg… Prince George native Aiden Reeves made his home debut with the Cougars, his first game at CN Centre since being called up from the Cariboo Cougars major midget team. Reeves played the right point, paired with Marco Creta. The 17-year-old had three goals and 15 points in 20 games with the midget Cats and also played seven games in he BCHL this season with the Spruce Kings… Cats D Ryan Schoettler missed Friday’s game recovering from mouth surgery… Cougar trade acquisitions Hooker and D Majid Kaddoura also made their home debuts. Kaddoura came close to scoring his second goal for Prince George when he rattled a shot off the post early in the second period…Saturday is Vegas Night at CN Centre and Elvis will be in the building. Amanda Holmes and her fiancé Chris Holmes will tie the knot at centre ice and Elvis impersonator Steve Elliott will be on hand to serenade the couple in front of thousands of wedding guests during the first intermission. Kat Fullerton will bring a touch of Marilyn Monroe to the pre-game national anthem…. The Champions of Magic will perform some of their tricks of the trade during the second intermission… The 50-50 jackpot will start at $4,000 before the game begins.


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