Portland offence cause for Cougars' concern

Team Canada is calling Portland Winterhawks centre Cody Glass.

Looking at his stats this season, who wouldn't want the 19-year-old Winnipeg native on the team? Glass ranks fourth in scoring in the Western Hockey League with 21 goals and 51 points in 24 games.

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Canada's world junior camp starts Tuesday in Victoria and Glass is likely a shoo-in to make the roster. He's done everything the Vegas Golden Knights expected he would when they picked him sixth overall as their first-ever choice in the 2017 NHL draft.

The Prince George Cougars are about to be reminded what Glass is all about when they get to play against him in a two-game set which starts tonight in Portland.

As productive as Glass has been, there's one other Winterhawk with more points this season. Danish import Joachim Blichfeld has been dynamite as the left winger on Glass's line with right winger Ryan Hughes. Through 28 games. Blichfeld has 25 goals and 29 assists for 54 points and ranks third in the WHL scoring race, six points behind Brett Leason of the Prince Albert Raiders and Trey Fix-Wolanski of the Edmonton Oil Kings. Glass and Blichfeld each collected five points in their most recent game Sunday, a 10-2 blowout victory over the visiting Kootenay Ice.

Portland also has 31-point centre Reece Newkirk and a couple of stud defenceman - Jared Freadrich (3-21-24) and Carolina Hurricanes pick Brendan DeJong (4-12-16) - who love to jump into the rush.

The Hawks (16-10-0-2) are flying high as the second-place team in the U.S. Division. Just two other teams - Prince Albert (136) and Edmonton (117) - have scored more goals than Portland (114). Compare that with the Cougars' 66-goal total in 28 games and it becomes clear how difficult a task it will be for the Cougars to stifle the Winterhawks offence in back-to-back games tonight and Saturday.

"They've got some horses up front with the likes of Cody Glass, a special player, it's only a matter of time before we see him in the National League," said Cougars head coach Richard Matvichuk. "That Blichfeld kid is playing well too, as a 20. They've got some power up front and we'll have to manage the pucks in the right areas and do the right things.

"Discipline is a huge part. We've got to stay out of the penalty box."

Neither team has been very good at doing that. The Winterhawks have 422 penalty minutes (fourth-most in the WHL), just ahead of the Cougars 413 minutes (fifth overall).

The Cougars (11-14-1-2) have dropped to fifth in the B.C. Division but they're just three points behind the second-place Kelowna Rockets, having played two fewer games than Kelowna.

The Cats practiced Thursday in Portland and Matvichuk said it was a high-tempo session. He's hoping to see more regular power-play point production from players like Josh Maser, who had a goal and two assists last game after going seven games with just one point.

"We're just working some things offensively to try to create some more offence and we changed a couple things within our system and hopefully they'll pay off this weekend.

"(Maser's) kind of snakebitten. He's had the opportunity to probably have four to six more power-play goals. It's not bouncing that way now. It's one thing to not score on your chances, but if you weren't getting the chances (which Maser is) then you'd have to go look elsewhere."

The weekend games will be the first in Portland for Cougar forwards Ilijah Colina and Connor Bowie since the Winterhawks traded them to Prince George in the Dennis Cholowski deal.

Matvichuk intends to start Taylor Gauthier in goal. He played both games last weekend at home against Victoria and its obvious he still holds the role as the starter despite a couple shaky performances the past couple weeks in which his youth as a WHL goalie was exposed.

"We've got to remember he's only a 17-year-old kid and he has a lot of pressure going on with his draft year and the more we can keep him focused and the more he can play him through his growing pains, the better he's going to be," said Matvichuk. "You look around the league at Ian Scott (the Prince Albert Raiders goalie who sports a WHL-best 1.62 goals-against average). His first couple years in the league wasn't his best but all of sudden the switch went off and his maturity took over and he's one of the top goaltenders in the league."

The Cougars gave up four first-period goals in a 5-2 loss to Victoria last Saturday but rebounded with a much better outing in the rematch Sunday afternoon when they beat the Royals 5-3.

"It was a tough eight minutes, the first eight minutes of the first period we kind of fell asleep with three breakaways and a bad goal on the power play and that's not our team," said Matvichuk. "Both those games were very similar, it's just that Victoria scored on their chances in the first one and in the second one we scored on ours."

The Cougars left on Wednesday for their 11-game trip and won't be back until the second week of January. The nearly six-week gap between home games will be the longest for the Cougars since the team moved from Victoria in 1994.

"The good thing about being away is you're not thinking about the Christmas break or your families and friends and your billets, so it's almost a blessing in disguise that we're away," said Matvichuk. "We're able to keep them focused and we'll do some team bonding activities planned on Sunday. It's a matter of keeping them focused. We need these wins when we can get them."

The Cougars will be without one of their top forwards tonight. Winger Jackson Leppard was suspended one game for being assessed a game misconduct at the end of Sunday's game. D Tyson Phare is out for the next three or four weeks with a knee injury, while D Cameron MacPhee had shoulder surgery and could miss the rest of the season.

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