Given another chance to put the wraps on a win over the Kamloops Blazers with his third shot at an empty net from north of the centre, Josh Maser didn’t miss.
With the puck on his stick, Maser double-clutched to get free of Blazers defenceman Libor Zabransky and nailed it – his 19th goal of the season and first point in four games which sealed a 3-1 victory.
Until that point it was anybody’s guess whether the Blazers and their vaunted offence were finally going to solve Taylor Gauthier, the Cougars’ extraordinary gatekeeper. But they could only put one puck behind the 18-year-old goalie, who made 37 saves to preserve what must rank as one of the biggest wins of the season for the Cats, in front of a CN Centre crowd of 3,077.
“Kamloops is obviously the team to beat in the B.C. Division and we’ve been battling in a lot of these games, coming so close, and it was good to finally come out on the other side of it,” said Maser, the Cougars’ captain.
“I think (Friday) night we definitely were pretty slow all night and tonight we got the jump in us. Playing these fast teams like Kamloops, on the transition they’re so fast to get back into our zone on the attack so we’ve got to work hard to get back. That’s what it was tonight, we were coming back harder and we just wanted to win more.”
Jonny Hooker and Tyson Upper gave the Cougars the offence they needed Saturday to lift the Cougars to their third win in five games against the Blazers this season. It was the first loss of 2020 for Kamloops (31-12-2-1) after nine straight wins. They came to the rink having won eight in a row on the road.
Hooker’s goal, a deflected shot that fluttered in over the shoulder of Blazers’ goalie Rayce Ramsay, opened the scoring 3:57 into the second period. It was Hooker’s 11th goal of the season and second since joining the Cougars in a trade Jan. 10 from Brandon.
Sixteen-year-old Blazers’ centre Caeden Bankier tied it up with a wrister from the slot, which came 16:58 into the second. Bankier scored the empty-net goal for Kamloops Friday in their 3-0 win over the Cougars.
Upper’s game-winning goal 1:36 into the third period, came right after Ethan Browne jumped onto the ice after serving a penalty that carried over from the second period. Browne picked up a loose puck and spotted Upper breaking up centre ice ahead pf the Kamloops defence and he finished the breakaway with a high shot in past Ramsay.
Just as he did Friday while making 42 saves in the loss to Kamloops, Gauthier continued to frustrate the Blazers, robbing them of what looked to be sure-goals on numerous occasions. He came into the game with .950 save percentage in the four previous games against Kamloops and surely raised that statistic even higher with his first-star performance.
Gauthier was at his best while the Blazers and their No. 3-ranked power play were buzzing the Cougar zone with sustained bouts of pressure. Led by the face-off finesse of Brendan Boyle, backed by defensive specialists Upper, Connor Bowie and Ilijah, Colina the Cougars’ penalty-killing forwards did their jobs keeping the Blazers boxed out. The Cougars defencemen cleared the crease area and amped up their physical play putting their muscle into a skilled group of quick puck-moving Blazers, who failed to score on four power-play chances.
“It starts with Gauthier on the back end, you look at the way he’s been playing lately and it’s just insane, we have such trust in him back there,” said Maser. “Another guy we’ve been missing lately is Boyle, he’s key penalty-killer for us and just having him back in the lineup, all those small areas of the game, whether it’s face-offs or just penalty-killing. He doesn’t get a lot of credit and we missed him.”
The 18-year-old Boyle missed three games during the Cougars’ tour of the East Division two weeks ago after he went into a diabetic seizure at the hotel where the Cougars were staying in Saskatoon. Boyle’s value to team was demonstrated in the final minute when Mark Lamb had him taking the all the draws as the Blazers tried to gain the puck in the Cougar end with their goalie on the bench.
The shots ended up 38-16 in favour of the Blazers.
“That’s the third time we’ve beat them now and to beat a team like that you have to have great goaltending and that’s exactly what happened,” said Lamb, the Cougars head coach and general manager.
“Penalty-killing and goaltending kind of go hand in hand and to split against Kamloops is a great weekend for us. The last few months Taylor has really had it dialed in, he’s really matured and he’s turning into a top goalie. I don’t know how anybody (among the pro scouts) could not be watching him right now. ”
The two points allowed the Cougars (13-25-3-4) to remain within striking distance of the Seattle Thunderbirds and Vancouver Giants in the chase for a wild-card playoff spot. Seattle (18-22-3-2, ninth in Western Conference) lost in a shootout Saturday at home to the Portland Winterhawks while the Vancouver Giants (19-20-3-2, eighth in the West) lost on home ice 3-2 in overtime to the Kelowna Rockets. Prince George is eight points behind The T-birds and nine back of the Giants.
The Cougars’ six-game homestand continues next weekend against the Tri-City Americans. The Cougars and Americans, who rank ninth in the West, are currently tied with 33 points.