Cougars Winterhawks Preview.
After six long months of waiting, the Prince George Cougars will make their 2013-2014 regular season debut tonight in one of the league’s most hostile environments. You want to see what the 2013-2014 Prince George Cougars are made of? Well Opening night in Portland against the defending WHL league champions on the night that they raise their championship banner should provide a heck of a test.
Mike Johnston’s Portland Winterhawks were and quite possibly still are the best team in the Western Hockey League. When you’re a league champion, this title sticks with you until somebody knocks you out of the playoffs. Portland has reached the WHL league championship final in each of the past three seasons, and had it not been for the heroics of Halifax forward Nathan MacKinnon, Portland is probably the Memorial Cup Champion as well. During the 2012-2013 regular season they went 57-12-1-2. Four of those victories last season were against the Prince George Cougars.
Who’s Up Front:
Even though the Winterhawks will lose some key bodies up front, they still boast one of the more potent offensive attacks in the entire WHL. Last season both Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan finished atop the WHL scoring race with 120 points each. Both are expected back with Portland this season, and barring any surprising setbacks, both could very well be in uniform for Portland tonight.
Who’s on D:
The biggest difference for Portland this season will be on the back end. Gone are the stalwarts Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon, and it’s highly unlikely that Seth Jones will be in Portland at all this season, let alone tonight against Prince George. That said, there’ll be some great opportunities for ice time tonight for Portland defenders, and you know that team defense is a tremendous strength for this team. One man’s departure means another man’s opportunity.
Who’s in Goal:
With Mac Carruth no longer eligible to play in the WHL due to age, this team will now rely heavily on Phoenix Coyotes goaltending prospect Brendan Burke to lead the way. Last season Burke went 24-5-1 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.65 goals-against-average. Burke showed last season that he is more than capable of leading the charge for Portland between the pipes.
Depth continues to be the name of the game for the Portland Winterhawks. Yes they boast the two top scorers from last season, but they also boast an incredible supporting cast that can come at you in waves. Columbus prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand will feature prominently in the Winterhawks offense again this season, while Chase De Leo, Taylor Leier and others will be ready for prime time this season.
After finishing the preseason with a perfect 5-0 record, Mark Holick’s Prince George Cougars will begin the process of the upward climb through the standings in 2013-2014. Holick is entering his first full season as Cougars bench boss, and I know many are curious to see how this team will look under a full season of his teachings. The Cougars showed during the preseason that they can score, defend and stop the puck with the best of them, but the regular season is always a different animal.
Who’s Up Front:
Alex Forsberg saved his best for last during the preseason. Last Saturday against Kamloops, Forsberg scored twice, added two assists and paced the Cougars to a 6-1 victory over their BC Division rivals. Forsberg is going to be a huge component of the Cougars offense this season, and you know that he’ll be touted as one of the ‘go-too guys’ offensively tonight and throughout the season. Add the likes of Zach Pochiro, (possibly) Troy Bourke, Jansen Harkins, David Soltes, Chase Witala and others, and you’ve got a quality group of forwards that can contribute in a lot of different areas.
Who’s on D:
20-year-old defenceman Peter Kosterman had an outstanding Cougars debut last Saturday in the preseason. Kosterman had the game-winning goal in their 6-1 win against Kamloops, and logged a ton of minutes in his first game as a Cougar. Kosterman’s experience will be relied upon heavily as the rest of the defense-corps is still very young. But the return of Marc McNulty will certainly help, and Joseph Carvalho and Raymond all both look poised for a breakout year in their sophomore WHL seasons.
Who’s in Goal:
Brett Zarowny had the best goals-against-average of any WHL goaltender in the preseason. Passed over in the 2013 NHL Draft, Zarowny is heading into 2013-2014 with a major point to prove. Last season in spurts he showed that he could be an elite netminder in this league, and if the Cougars are going to win tonight, they are going to need Zarowny to lead that charge. If Zarowny can do what he is capable of doing, the Cougars have every right to believe that they can win tonight’s game and spoil the party for Portland.
The biggest key for the Cougars tonight will be to ignore the distractions around them. Yes it’s opening night, and yes the Winterhawks will be raising their championship banner. But the Cougars cannot buy into any of that hype. Their sole focus has to be about ‘playing their game’ and quieting the crowd. An early goal, a big hit, or a big save early will be important for this team as they begin to turn the page on last season’s disappointment. This team believes in one another, and this team has fought hard for each other through the preseason, and now it’s time to go to war for real. What better place than the home-rink of the defending champs to slam your first successful stamp of 2013-2014?
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