Welcome to the jungle.
The Prince George Cougars are going Tiger hunting tonight in Medicine Hat and they'll have to do without one of their most formidable and intimidating weapons - 19-year-old winger Josh Maser.
He's been sentenced to a four-game suspension by the Western Hockey League's disciplinary committee. That's Maser's additional punishment for taking out Vancouver Giants centre Justin Sourdis with a slew-foot check early in the second period of their game Saturday at CN Centre.
Losing Maser means someone else will have to fill in for the six-foot-two, 218-pound native of Houston. Although Maser has struggled to produce points lately with just a goal and an assist in seven games after a 28-goal season in 2017-18, he's still one of the team's top left wingers and a team leader on and off the ice.
"Obviously it's a big hole - he's a big physical player for us but as a group we stress as coaches and management that you've got to play within the rules," said Cougars head coach Richard Matvichuk. "There was no conclusive evidence but there was enough to suspend him and we accept it as an organization and we have to move on."
The Cougars are on a three-game road trip which stops Saturday in Lethbridge and Sunday afternoon in Cranbrook, home of the Kootenay Ice.
The Cougars (2-4-0-1, third in B.C. Division) are trying to shake a three-game losing streak which began two weekends ago with a loss at home to the Kelowna Rockets. They played well through large stretches of their two-game series at CN Centre last weekend against the Giants and were especially good in Saturday's game but left the ice without a point, losing 3-2.
Goalie Isaiah DiLaura made his season debut in that game in net for the Cougars and was solid throughout, stopping 25 of 28 shots. Matvichuk says the 19-year-old from Minnesota will likely play one of the three games on the weekend. Taylor Gauthier will draw the start tonight in Medicine Hat.
"I thought he played well - his rebound control was really good and his puck touches with the defence were good also. I was impressed with him," said Matvichuk.
Defenceman Cameron MacPhee, 19, remains sidelined with a lower-body injury he was nursing during training camp. The Cougars are otherwise healthy.
"It gives an opportunity for some other guys who have stepped up and played some key minutes for us - the Jack Sanders, the Tyson Phares - it's just a matter of us, keep building this thing," said Matvichuk.
Phare, the Cougars' first-round bantam pick (18th overall) in 2017, started training camp as a winger but was moved back to defence, his natural position in minor hockey, and the 16-year-old has not looked out of place.
"He's a smart player, an offensive player, and being 16 you have to be patient with guys like this and develop them in the proper areas and it's not going to be an overnight thing," said Matvichuk. "There's going to be days when he plays more and days when he's in and out of the lineup. That's part of being 16.
"With the likes of our (2003-born) and even going back to our (2002-born) players, we've drafted what we wanted and they're people who are going to play in our organization. Mark Lamb (who took over from Todd Harkins this summer as the Cougars' general manager) is a very patient GM, which is awesome. Now it's just a matter of us sticking with the game plan and go from there."
The Tigers (3-5-0-1, fourth in Central Division) will be looking for a better performance than they brought to the rink in their most recent game, a 5-0 loss Monday at Kootenay.
"We have to expect their best. They're a skilled hockey team that plays hard and we're going to have to play the way we can, the way we did on Friday and Saturday, to come out of there with a win," said Matvichuk. "All we've basically played is division hockey games here and we're looking forward to something different."
When they play the Hurricanes Saturday in Lethbridge the Cougars will likely face former Cariboo Cougars forward Ty Kolle, acquired last week in a trade from the Portland Winterhawks. The 18-year-old from Kamloops scored two goals and was picked as the first star Wednesday in the Hurricanes' 4-2 win over the Regina Pats.
The Cougars will be back at home next weekend to play the defending WHL-champion Swift Current Broncos in an afternoon matinee on Sunday, Oct. 21. The Cougars have designated that as Minor Sports Day and will be offering group discounts on tickets to teams and minor sports organizations.