Azhgirei comfortable as a Cougar
Not long after he joined the Prince George Cougars and was introduced to his new teammates, Pavel Azhgirei could not resist offering a little reminder about how the Belarus national under-17 team won the prestigious Mac’s midget tournament 10 months ago in Calgary.
Playing on the same team with his new Cougar teammate Vladislav Mikhalchuk, Azhgirei saved his best for last in the final – a four-point effort in a 6-1 win over the Saskatoon Contacts.
It just so happens, Cougar winger Chance Adrian played in that game for the Contacts.
Azhgirei also put his fluent English speaking skills to use reminding Cougars defenceman Jonas Harkins about how Belarus eliminated the Cariboo Cougars – the team Harkins played for last season – beating them 5-4 in overtime in the Mac’s semifinal. Nice way to try make new friends. “We’ve been talking about it,” said Azhgirei, through his obvious Russian accent. “I scored two goals and two assists in the final, I was best player in the game.
“We were so happy after winning that. It was (a) big win, for me it was shocking.”
Belarus went undefeated at 7-0. Azhgirei picked up 10 points (four goals, six assists) and Mikhalchuk finished the tournament with six goals and three assists.
Cougars fans will get their first look at Azhgirei tonight (7 p.m., CN Centre) when the Cats take on the Everett Sivertips. The six-foot-two, 175-pound Azhgirei has the skills expected of a European import and says he doesn’t mind the rough stuff he will no doubt encounter as a WHL left winger.
“I think I’m (a) physical guy, I like to score goals and I want to help the team,” Azhgirei said. “In Everett I play four game, the coach didn’t give me a chance and now I’m here.”
In April, Azhgirei and Mikhalchuk both played for Belarus in the IIHF world under-18 championship in Slovakia and they’re both hoping to earn spots on the national under-20 team that will play in the world junior championship this year in Buffalo.
Azhgirei was taken by Everett in the second round of the 2017 CHL import draft (118th overall) after the Cougars had selected the 18-year-old Mikhalchuk in the first round, 54th overall. The fact they both have the same North American agent made it easier for Cougars general manager Todd Harkins to put the necessary paperwork together to bring Azhgirei to Prince George.
“I heard that he might come free from Everett and there was a lot more to it than just his play, it was his culture and his language and being in the States, he wasn’t comfortable,” said Harkins. “So we thought that maybe with the comfort of having a former teammate here it might work out for him. He’s only 17 so you have to think about the difficulty of moving away from home across the distance but I thought it might be comforting having Vlad here to help him. All he does is have a smile on his face.”
Azhgirei is from Grodno, a city of about 500,000 in western Belarus near the borders of Poland and Lithuania. He’s had about a week to get used to his new surroundings in Prince George, after spending about three months living in Everett. They are both billeted in the home of UNBC Timberwolves women’s basketball head coach Sergey Shchepotkin and his Russian wife.
“It’s a good team, a good organization and good city and I like it here,” he said. “It’s so different from Everett. Prince George is a Canadian city and it’s so cold, and every road trip is so far.”
A spot on the Cougars’ roster opened up for Azhgirei when import winger Nikita Popugaev decided after 13 games this season to return to Russia. The Cougars picked up Azhgirei on waivers last week from Everett. After collecting one assist in five games for the Silvertips, he joined the Cougars in Everett last Friday and played on a line with Adrian and Max Kryski in what ended up a 3-1 loss.
Azhgirei can’t wait for another chance to beat his former team in the two-game weekend set. The Cats surrendered Patrick Bajkov’s winning goal last week with less than two minutes remaining in the game. That came three days after another lategame collapse in Portland, where they allowed Cody Glass to score the winner with 39 seconds left.
That marked the end of a stretch of seven straight games away from home over three weeks. The Cougars (5-8-2-2) came back with two wins, three regulation losses and two shootout losses.
“We’re not happy with what’s going on, losing hockey games, and we’ve addressed the situation and our older guys have hopefully grabbed onto this thing,” said Cougars head coach Richard Matvichuk. “You talk about the youth in our lineup but our youth isn’t hurting us. We’re making some bad mistakes as older players and we have to be accountable for that. We feel we played well enough on that road trip to get more than just a couple wins.
Tavin Grant will get the start tonight in the Cougars’ net.
Defenceman Josh Anderson (shoulder injury) won’t play tonight but the Cougars are otherwise healthy. The Silvertips have no injures to report.