The smile on Mitch Kohner’s face was a wide as the puck his linemate Tyson Upper fished out of the net.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event scoring your first career WHL goal and Kohner picked an opportune time, with his dad Tony from Rosemount, Minn., a couple hundred feet away watching from the stands Saturday at CN Centre.
Unfortunately for the Kohner’s Prince George Cougars it was only goal they scored in a 4-1 loss to the Vancouver Giants, who completed a two-game sweep of the Cats in their season-opening weekend.
“Having my dad here to watch my first WHL goal was pretty nice,” said Kohner, 17, picked as the third star playing right wing on a line with Craig Armstrong and Tyson Upper that was the best forward trio for the Cougars in both games.
Kohner’s goal, with about two minutes left in the first period, provided an electric jolt that zapped some life into the team and Armstrong made it happen. The 16-year-old centre, drafted ninth overall by the Cougars in 2018, won a footrace with Giants defenceman Alex Kannnok-Liepert for a loose puck on the left wing and slapped the puck over to Kohner, who streaked in from the slot and batted it in from just outside the crease.
“Kohner got his first today just because of his hustle and (Armstrong’s) great playmaking, it’s easy to play with those two,” said Upper. “We’ve been together about a week and right from the first game (Friday) it just seemed to click.
“I was so excited for Kohner, I grabbed that puck right away for him. I’m glad he got it early in the year. You should have seen his face right after that. He put a lot of pressure on himself, he wanted that so bad and he worked so hard for it. I’m proud of the kid.”
Upper, 17, who scored twice in Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Giants, said his line drew a ton of confidence from the two games, matched up against Vancouver’s top lines and Cougars head coach Mark Lamb rewarded them with a ton of icetime.
“We’ve got some chemistry, we’ve got some compete level and we went down on the forecheck and created chances tonight,” said Upper. “I didn’t score much last year (five goals in 67 games). Mark’s been telling me to get the puck net and that’s what I’ve been doing and it worked (Friday) night.
“We just have to come prepared. They were one of the top teams in our division last year and they’re going to be good again this year and we can’t fall down 3-0 right away. We’ve got to give ourselves a chance and stick to our game. When we finally got into the game we were right there with them, competing.”
Continuing a pattern that developed in the preseason, the Cougars got off to a horrible start and fell behind the 8-ball 3-0 after eight minutes of play. Seth Bafaro struck first at even strength 3:43 in when his shot from the point was kicked out by Gauthier and deflected on off the skate of Cougar forward Jackson Leppard. A couple minutes later, Shepard was perfectly-positioned to rap in a rebound on the power play. That set the stage for Justin Sourdif, who scored his second of the season with a shot from the slot caught a piece of Gauthier’s glove and dropped in.
That was the seventh shot the Cougars allowed and it spelled the end of the night for Gauthier, replaced by 16-year-old rookie Tyler Brennan who came in for his first regular season action since his WHL debut last February in Kelowna when he played 10 minutes of relief.
“You can’t start like that, it wasn’t (Gauthier’s) fault, we just switched the goalies for momentum purposes and it worked, the team starting playing better and we didn’t give them a lot and that’s the way we’re going to have to play,” said Lamb.
“You’ve got to be ready to play. They’re a good team over there and they’re not going to give you an easy night. It’s hard to say you shut them down when you lose like that but there’s a lot of good parts to our game.
“That (Upper-Armstrong-Kohner) line stuck out. They’re not big in stature but they work hard and they can skate and they’re hard to play against when they get playing like that.”
The teams tightened up considerably in the second period, limiting the quality chances. After getting outshot 10-5 in the first period the Cats built a 14-5 advantage in the second but couldn’t get any into the net behind Arizona Coyotes draft pick David Tendeck.
In the third period the Giants restored their three-goal lead, taking advantage of a turnover in the Cougar zone. Sourdis stripped the puck from Rhett Rhinehart and finished off the 2-on-1 break with a goalmouth pass to Shepard got down on one knee to slap the puck into the net to cap the scoring.
The Cougars rallied around their six-foot-three, 190-pound rookie goalie and ended up with a 27-20 shot advantage.
“It was tough going in down 3-0 but I feel I stood my ground and helped the team to have a chance to win the game,” said Brennan. “We didn’t get the result we wanted but the team played really well in front of me and made it a good experience. I didn’t have a lot of nerves going in and I felt pretty calm in there.
“It’s definitely a confidence-builder knowing you let in just one goal against one of the best teams in the league but you can’t take anything like that for granted and you’ve got to keep working in practice and get better.”
LOOSE PUCKS: The Cougars lost defenceman Cole Moberg at the start of the third period with an apparent upper-body injury. That would be a huge loss to the Cats if the 18-year-old Chicago Blackhawks draft pick is out of the lineup longterm. They’re already missing top-line centre Ilijah Colina, who’s nursing a shoulder injury and is not expected to return until mid-October… The Cougars will hit the road this week for games in Victoria Friday and Saturday.
Saturday’s WHL summary
Giants 4 at Cougars 1
1. Vancouver, Bafaro 2 (Sourdif, Bulych) 3:43
2. Vancouver, J.Shepard 3 (Bafaro, Kannok-Leipert) 5:44
Penalties – Rhinehart PG (checking to the head) 4:15, Upper PG (tripping) 6:38, Bulych Van (holding) 7:42, Plouffe Van (cross-checking) 11:26.
Penalties – Svejkovsky Van (cross-checking) 1:09, Armstrong PG (delay of game) 11:53
5. Vancouver, Shepard 4 (Sourdif) 2:55
Penalties – Plouffe Van (interference) 3:40, Svejkovsky (tripping) 15:46, Maser PG (roughing) 17:36.
Shots on goal by
Vancouver 10 5 5 -20
Prince George5 14 8 -27
Goal – Vancouver, Tendeck (W,1-0-0); Prince George, Gauthier (L,0-2-0, 7-4) and, at 8:02 of first, Brennan, 13-12).
Power plays – Van: 1-4; PG: 0-5.
Referees – Trevor Nolan, Mark Pierce; Linesmen – Brett Mackay, Tyler Garden.
Attendance – 2,163.
Scratches – Vancouver: G Braedy Euerby (healthy), LW Sergei Alkimov (lower body), LW Owen Hardy (healthy), C Cole Shepard (lower body), LW Krz Plummer (upper body), LW Brayden Watts (healthy), D Bowen Byram (still with Colorado Avalanche); Prince George: D Cole Beamin (healthy), C Ilijah Colina (shoulder, week-to-week), LW Davin Griffin (healthy), D Joe Kennedy (healthy).