With playoffs just a few weeks away, Ryan Howse has a feeling his midget hockey team is playing its best hockey of the season.
The last time he felt that way with a team he coached was a couple years ago when he was an assistant with the Coast Inn of the North Cougars and it didn't stop until they were hoisting the trophy as provincial champions.
This year, Howse is the head coach at the helm of the Cariboo Cougars minor midget team and his team of 2003-born players is on the verge of clinching the regular season title in the B.C. Hockey Minor Midget Triple-A League. The Cougars (24-5-1-0) have 49 points, two ahead of the Okanagan Rockets (23-6-0-1). Each team has two games left.
"It's exciting, the boys are playing really well and everybody's buying in o the systems that we present to them and it's just a great group this year again that I've kind of been blessed to coach in Prince George," said Howse.
"The excitement around this team with what we can accomplish this year going into playoffs is huge. We want to get first place and want to play all our games in front of our friends and family at home and ultimately win the championship. That's what we're focused on and things are starting to come around."
The Cougars were home last weekend and played four games in three days, winning them all. They started with a two-game sweep of the Vancouver Canadians, 5-2 Saturday and 5-4 Sunday morning, then took on the North Island Silvertips later in the day Sunday and Monday morning, and beat the Nanaimo-based team 6-3 and 5-2.
The games against the Silvertips were supposed to be played in early January but were postponed when the Cougars were turned back in the travel plans, unable to get across the Georgia Strait from Vancouver due to high winds and rough seas which canceled ferry service. No weekend icetime was available on alternate home dates for Silvertips and the series was moved to Prince George.
Balanced scoring was the story of the four games last weekend. A different Cougar led the celebration train past the players on the bench after just about every goal.
"That's the biggest thing, everyone's contributing, everyone's on the same page," said Howse. "We knew four games was going to be tiring and we're mentally tough right now. We're focusing on taking care of our bodies, practicing right, practicing hard and it's just transferring over to out games and making it easier for these kids to compete and be successful."
Cariboo has three forwards in the top-10 in the scoring race. Scott Couisins leads the league with 27 goals and 28 assists for 55 points, three ahead of second-place Max Graham of Okanagan.
"Scott was a bit of late bloomer and this year he's finally come out of his shell and taken the reins and he's run with it," said Howse.
Cougars Brady McIsaac (22-18-40) and Decker Mujcin (14-23-37) are seventh and ninth on the list.
Cousins, an undrafted Kelowna Rockets list player, centres a line with left winger Mujcin and Amar Powar. The line of centre Chase Pacheco, left winger McIsaac and right winger Linden Makow, a Spokane Chiefs prospect, has been creating their of offence and they've been together all season.
The two puckstoppers - Tysen Smith and Jasper Tait - have been getting the job done. Smith sports a 13-1-0-1-0 and 3.03 goals-against average, while Tait is 11-4-1-0-1, with a 3.36 average.
"I think I have the two best goalies in the league," said Howse. "They rotate every game, we haven't gone out of rotation all year. The team I had a couple years ago in Prince George, we never had to go out of rotation and we ended up winning every tournament we went to and the provincial championship. That's a huge key to the success we've been having."
As his assistants, Howse has Chase Astorino, Stew Lambert and goalie coach Ty Edmonds, the former Prince George Cougar. This is the second season of B.C. Hockey's minor midget league, which is exclusively first-year midgets who start the season as 15-year-olds, and Howse is sold on the concept.
"Alberta has had it for awhile and it's been pretty successful and I think our league is doing a great job," said Howse.
"It can be tricky at times finding leadership, there's not really that older guy you can rely on who's a little more mature, so sometimes you have to teach a little more. But with this group they are so into learning and students of the game and they've come so far and they've matured.
"They've just gotten better and better and the standings speak for itself. We've only lost five times, which is pretty special. Of those losses two of them came at the start of the year when we had some guys (injured). This is a team with the culture we've created, we don't like to lose, we like to compete and at the end of the day we have that never-die attitude and that's what takes us so far."
The Cougars host the Vancouver Northwest Hawks this weekend at Kin 2. They play Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m.