Blazers light a fire under Cats’ tails in preseason game
Vladimir Mikhalchuk’s English skills will need to improve as he adjusts to life in a new country with the Prince George Cougars. But as he showed Friday night at CN Centre, he speaks impeccable hockey. The 18-year-old right winger from Minsk, Belarus gave Cougar fans their first real chance to assess his skills when he took a regular shift in preseason action against the Kamloops Blazers.
The Blazers were full value for their 5-3 victory, overwhelming the Cats with stretches of dominance in the second and third periods in what was the final preseason test for both teams. Luc Smith led the way for Kamloops with two goals.
Mikhalchuk, acquired in the first round of the 2017 CHL import draft, 54th overall, played on a line with Ethan O’Rourke and Josh Maser and was in the right place at the right time to open the scoring when defenceman Shane Collins pinched in to block a Blazer clearing attempt along the boards.
The puck ricocheted off Collins’s leg, right to Mikhalchuk in the face-off circle and his quick shot beat goalie Max Palaga.
“I thought he played a really good game, he was physical and skating and he showed what he can do with his skills and his offensive prowess,” said Cougars head coach Todd Harkins.
“He’s good with the puck and can make plays and he’s only going to get better as he gets going her. He just needs more icetime in North America.
“We saw that at the Mac’s tournament last year that he has the ability to impress this year and hopefully will be an NHL draft pick.”
Named the first star, Mikhalchuk showed his one-on-one dangle ability on a Cougar power play late in the second period, leaving Blazers defenders Connor Zary and Sean Strange fishing for the puck and that led to a dangerous chance in tight – one of only a couple quality shots the Cougars had in the second period as they were outplayed by a considerable margin while getting outshot 13-9.
The six-foot-two, 172-pound Mikhalchuk is one of three Europeans on the Cougars’ roster.
The other two – forwards Nikita Popugaev (New Jersey Devils), 19, and Radovan Bondra (Chicago Blackhawks), 20, are still at their respective NHL camps.
The Cougars dressed just four veteran forwards and two of them connected for the second goal of the game midway through the opening period.
Jared Bethune spotted Kody McDonald breaking into open ice and fed him the puck.
The 19-year right winger, just back from the Winnipeg Jets rookie camp, let go a wrister from the high slot and it sailed in over Palaga’s blocker just under the crossbar.
Palaga, a 17-year-old from Kamloops who stopped pucks last season for the Thompson Blazers major midgets, had allowed just one goal in two games in the preseason but looked like he was fighting the puck at times in his half-game appearance.
Nineteen-year-old Tavin Grant, who appears to have a lock on the starting job in net for the Cougars, hadn’t played a WHL game at CN Centre since Jan. 30, 2015, the season he played 18 games for the Cats as a 16-year-old. Grant came to camp in great shape and after a season of junior B in the KIJHL and a year in the BCHL with the Spruce Kings he appears ready to make his mark taking over the starting role from the graduated Ty Edmonds.
The Blazers gained some momentum off consecutive penalties to Mikhalchuk to start the second period and scored two goals 54 seconds apart to tie it up.
Tyler Ludwar ripped a high shot through a pile of bodies in front of Grant to score the first one for Kamloops with 29 seconds remaining in the second Cougars’ penalty.
Centre Connor Zary won an offensive-zone faceoff and got the puck back to pointman Devan Harrison and his hard shot was tipped by someone in front before it landed in the net high behind Grant.
Grant stayed on the bench for the third period to give Isaiah DiLaura some playing time. At six-foot-two, 205 pounds, the 17-year-old from Lakeville, Minn., fills up a lot of net and he made a handful of sharp saves, stopped seven of nine Blazer shots.
Brodi Stuart and Justin Sigrist both scored on DiLaura.
Kyle Dumba didn’t get much work as the Blazers’ reliever in goal but had to be at his best to deny a shorthanded breakaway chance from Josh Curtis late in the game.
“The kids played well in the first period and you could see we were trying to be a bit cute in the second and third period and ran a little bit out of legs,” said Harkins.
“(The Blazers) seemed to get better as the game went on and they buried a couple of power-play goals and that was the difference.”
LOOSE PUCKS: Attendance was announced at 2,603 but the crowd size looked about half of that. The Cougars open the season next Friday at CN Centre against the Spokane Chiefs. The team will raise its first WHL banner to the rafters that night to commemorate their B.C. Division championship last season… Cougar defencemen Josh Anderson (Colorado Avalanche) and Dennis Cholowski (Detroit Red Wings) and still with their respective NHL teams. The Blazers have three NHL prospects in pro camps. Two of them, centre Garret Pilon (Washington Capitals) and defenceman Ondrej Vala (Dallas Stars) have signed entry-level contracts. G Dylan Ferguson was drafted in June by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
The kids played well in the first period and you could see we were trying to be a bit cute in the second and third period and ran a little bit out of legs. — Todd Harkins, Cougars head coach
Prince George Cougars forward Edge Lambert tries to get the puck ahead of Kamloops Blazers forward Carson Denomie on Friday at CN Centre. It was the first and only home game for the Cougars during the preseason.