Prince George Cougars head coach Dean Clark has only 14 games — including tonight’s match against the Red Deer Rebels at the Centrium — in which to identify the eligible players who deserve to be back in red and black next season.
The Cougars were officially eliminated from WHL playoff contention last weekend with a 3-1 home-ice loss to the Portland Winterhawks. Of course, the 11-44-1-2 team has been out of the post-season race for weeks and will almost certainly finish dead last in the 20-team loop.
“Obviously our expectations were a lot higher here and for whatever reason, with the things that have happened and our inconsistent play, that’s why we are where we are,” Clark told Jason Peters of the Prince George Citizen. “We’re going to use the rest of the season to get better and really look at the players that we have here and see who the guys are that we want to come back.”
The Cougars, with one of the league’s youngest rosters, were never going to be mistaken as contenders this season and losing star forward Brett Connolly to injury for all but 12 games didn’t help their cause.
The team, as Peters pointed out, also had problems between the pipes, with projected starter James Priestner announcing his retirement early in the season and Hudson Stremmel and Alex Wright suffering injuries.
Ironically, former Cougars goalie Ian Curtis, who was released last season after expressing his displeasure on playing behind starter Kevin Armstrong, played a role in striking Prince George from the playoff race. Curtis stopped 30 shots and later admitted he knew the Cougars would be eliminated with a loss.
“That played a little bit bigger role in the kind of motivation and the kind of intensity I came into the game with,” he said. “I wouldn’t say (I have) hard feelings (toward the Cougars). More or less, it was just nice to get redemption. It was just nice to come in and show a good result and get a victory and just prove what you could have done had you been given the opportunity here.”
Meanwhile, Connolly, the Cougars’ young ace, is still projected as a high first-round pick for this year’s NHL entry draft despite his lengthy absence from the Prince George lineup with a hip flexor.
“It’s nice that you get that credit, especially when I’m sitting in the stands and not showing what I can do,” Connolly told Scott Fisher of the Calgary Sun following Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to the Hitmen. “That means a lot that (the scouts) still think I’m that guy, even though they haven’t seen me play all year.”
Connolly, listed as week-to-week with his injury, was selected as the CHL rookie of the year last spring after sniping 30 goals and collecting 60 points as a 16-year-old.
• That rascal Kyle Beach is on a roll with his Spokane Chiefs linemates.
Beach, one of the more controversial WHL players over the last three years, is not only riling opponents with his on-ice personality but is piling up points at a rapid rate.
The league’s leading sniper fired three goals in Wednesday’s 7-0 thumping of the host Kamloops Blazers. The hat trick was his second in two games and ran his goal total to 45 for the season.
Linemate Mitch Wahl had a goal and two assists, and although the third member of the Chiefs’ first unit — Blake Gal — didn’t have a point, Beach gave him plenty of credit for the line’s success.
“Things just seem to be clicking,” Beach told Gregg Drinnan of the Kamloops Daily News. “We changed up the lines and put Gal with Wahl and me. (Gal) does an unbelievable job. He’s not getting points, but he’s first on the forecheck and he’s creating the room for Wahl and me.”
• Any concerns the Brandon Wheat Kings and WHL commissioner Ron Robison might have harboured concerning the club’s ability to be a competitive Memorial Cup host team in May appear to have been put to rest.
The Wheat Kings have won 11 of their last 12 games and clinched a playoff berth with a 4-2 victory over the host Calgary Hitmen Monday afternoon. Brandon is also No. 6 in the latest CHL top-10 rankings.
“Quite frankly, you have to be championship calibre to be able to compete in this tournament,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison told James Shewaga of the Brandon Sun. “I think first of all, the league and his partners across the league, in particular, were very confident in (Wheat Kings GM/coach) Kelly McCrimmon’s ability to put together a competitive team.
“Don’t forget that the Western Hockey League selects its (host) location further out than any of the other three leagues and consequently it’s always questioned how we can do that. And quite frankly it’s due to the confidence that we have in the general manager assembling a team that can be competitive. The key elements were in place to have a core nucleus and he’s added to that to strengthen his team to what we think is a championship calibre club.”
• Regina Pats head coach Curtis Hunt is trying to take the pressure off his players as they continue to fight an uphill battle in an attempt to snare a playoff berth.
The Pats, with 12 regular-season games left, are seven points back of the final post-season berth in the Eastern Conference, and Hunt wants his players to relish the excitement of the race instead of feeling overwhelmed.
“The truth about this time of year is, if you want to be a hockey player, this is the best time of year,” Hunt told Greg Harder of the Regina Leader-Post. “Every shift matters, every decision matters. Your spider senses should be on high tingle. It’s just a great time to play hockey. That’s what we keep telling them: ‘Be excited to play every day. Yesterday is not important anymore, other than the lessons we learn.’ That’s what we talk about as a group. The problems are in this room, but the solutions are also in this room. We have the power to rectify (those problems) and advance forward.”
Still, the Pats are running out of time.
“We just have to win our games,” said Hunt, who insisted his team is still master of its own fate. “We need to get points in every game. But what’s important, like I’ve always said, is we have to take care of that Brandon game first (tonight). We have to find a way to win in that building. We had a disappointing showing last time in there (losing 6-2 on Feb. 9).”