Azh­girei com­fort­able as a Cougar

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

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.

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