Blaz­ers light a fire un­der Cats’ tails in pre­sea­son game

The Prince George Citizen - - SPORTS - Ted Clarke Cit­i­zen staff tclarke@pgc­i­t­i­zen.ca

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

CIT­I­ZEN PHOTO BY JAMES DOYLE

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.

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