Cougars’ Mikhalchuk hav­ing break­out sea­son

The Prince George Citizen - - Sports - Ted CLARKE Ci­ti­zen staff

In only his sec­ond sea­son in the Western Hockey League, Vladislav Mikhalchuk is march­ing along on a fast track to be­com­ing a dom­i­nant player.

If not for a sud­den twist of fate this past sum­mer, he might well be march­ing to a mil­i­tary drum.

But he’s back in Prince George, keep­ing the Cougars in the hunt for a play­off spot.

Head­ing into tonight’s game in Lan­g­ley against the Western Con­fer­ence-lead­ing Van­cou­ver Gi­ants, Mikhalchuk is the Cats’ lead­ing point-get­ter, with three goals and 10 as­sists though 17 games.

That might not have been pos­si­ble for the 19-year-old from Minsk, Be­larus, had he not re­ceived help from an out­side source who helped him clear a pa­per­work hur­dle which threat­ened to block his re­turn to Prince George.

Fac­ing 18 months of manda­tory mil­i­tary duty, Mikhalchuk reached out to Ev­geni Kono­bri, a for­mer Kon­ti­nen­tal Hockey League goalie, who helped him through the process.

“When you turn 18 in Eu­rope you have to join the army and they said ‘Let’s join,’ and I said ‘I can’t, I’m a hockey player,’ and they said ‘We don’t care,’ and that’s why I left Be­larus, but I didn’t have a visa,” Mikhalchuk ex­plained.

“I had a Cana­dian visa, but it was with my old pass­port and I got a new pass­port and went to Moscow to switch my visa to my new pass­port. But I didn’t have any friends in Moscow where I could live for two weeks and it’s too ex­pen­sive for two weeks. So (Kono­bri) texted me on In­sta­gram and I texted him to ex­plain my prob­lem and he said to come to live with him for two weeks. I was so scared, but I came to him and he was a hockey player too.”

Given the chance to pick up where he left off with the Cougars af­ter scor­ing 14 goals and 33 points in 60 games in his rookie sea­son, Mikhalchuk has thrived. His quick re­lease and hard shot is a night­mare for goalies to try to stop. His knack for thread­ing pin­point passes to team­mates and his abil­ity to leave de­fend­ers fish­ing for the puck while he blows past them is earn­ing points with NHL scouts com­pil­ing their prospect lists. Mikhalchuk has played well in the first two months of the sea­son and he’s cer­tainly in the mix to hear his name called at the NHL draft next June in Van­cou­ver.

“He’s start­ing to open eyes – he’s skilled, he can skate, he can shoot. He’s a 200-foot player and I re­ally

He’s start­ing to open eyes – he’s skilled, he can skate, he can shoot. He’s a 200-foot player and I re­ally like him.

— Richard Matvichuk

like him,” said Cougars head coach Richard Matvichuk. “Since he’s been here he’s been great. When Vlad turns on the work ethic he’s a very good hockey player and now that he’s get­ting used to the North Amer­i­can side of it, not just the hockey but hang­ing out with friends here and mak­ing dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ships, it’s mak­ing him a bet­ter player.”

Mikhalchuk has been play­ing the right side on a line with left winger Jack­son Lep­pard and Bren­dan Boyle and Matvichuk likes the chem­istry they’re show­ing on the ice. Mikhalchuk’s in­creased un­der­stand­ing of the lan­guage they speak on the ice has helped im­mea­sur­ably.

“His English is get­ting way bet­ter – he’s work­ing on it on a daily ba­sis and it’s trans­lat­ing into a bet­ter game for him,” said Matvichuk. “He’s will­ing to learn. He wants to watch video, he wants to get bet­ter and it’s great to see the dif­fer­ence now that he’s grow­ing into Vlad Mikhalchuk. He’s be­com­ing a hockey player.”

Play­ing on one of the youngest, fastest teams in the WHL, Mikhalchuk’s ice­time has in­creased ex­po­nen­tially this sea­son and he’s see­ing the re­sults. In the first Seat­tle game last week­end, a 4-1 win at CN Cen­tre on Fri­day, he had a goal and an as­sist paired with Josh Maser and Matej Toman and that line was in on all four goals.

“The coaches be­lieve in me, like, I’m play­ing power play, and they give me a lot of time on the ice,” said Mikhalchuk, who had two break­aways last Satur­day in the Cougars’ 2-0 win over Seat­tle.

“I’ve had to im­prove my de­fence play. I know where I have to be.”

Mikhalchuk pat­terns him­self af­ter Alex Ovechkin, whom he once saw play live in the KHL for Moscow Dy­namo.

“When he played in the KHL he wasn’t very good be­cause it was a big (rink) area and he felt dif­fer­ent,” Mikhalchuk said. “He’s bet­ter in NHL rinks.”

Mikhalchuk made the de­ci­sion two years ago to leave Be­larus and through an agent sub­mit­ted his name for the 2017 CHL im­port draft and the Cougars picked him in the first round, 54th over­all. Prior to that he played for the un­der-18 na­tional team in Be­larus and was a mem­ber of the U-17 team that won the Mac’s Midget Tour­na­ment in 2016. He fig­ured the ma­jor ju­nior route gave him the best chance of mak­ing it to the NHL and so far the WHL has lived up to his ex­pec­ta­tions.

“Here in Canada, hockey is much faster than in Eu­rope and the rink is smaller and the play­ers are more ag­gres­sive,” Mikhalchuk said. “All my life I wanted to play in Canada, it’s like a dream.

“I got a shock when I got drafted. My English wasn’t re­ally good but I played last year and my English im­proved a lot. Sec­ond year, I know every­body (on the team) and it’s way eas­ier.”

Mikhalchuk’s was bil­leted last sea­son with UNBC men’s bas­ket­ball coach Sergey Shchep­otkin and his wife Alla, who are both Rus­sian-born, and they lived to­gether with Cougars team­mate Pavel Azghirei, also a Rus­sianspeak­ing na­tive of Be­larus. This year, Mikhalchuk re­quested bil­let par­ents who don’t speak Rus­sian, just so he can prac­tice his English. He now lives with Sharon and Elmer Stafford.

His par­ents are home in Minsk, a city of about two mil­lion, and he has one brother, 10-year-old Leon, who also plays hockey. They don’t get to see him play in per­son due to the cost of travel, un­like most fam­ily mem­bers of the Cougars based in Western Canada, but they faith­fully watch the in­ter­net game we­b­casts.

Mikhalchuk turned down the of­fer to play at the IIHF world ju­nior tour­na­ment. Be­larus was rel­e­gated from the top divi­sion and is now part of Group A, which will play Dec. 9-15 in Fussen, Ger­many. He was with the world ju­nior team in Buf­falo last year but didn’t get to play and said he doesn’t want miss time with the Cougars.

“It’s start­ing right now and they asked me to join but I don’t want to,” he said. “Last sea­son I didn’t play a lot, I spent the time on the bench and I missed 12 games here.”

He’s look­ing for­ward to vis­it­ing the Ed­mon­ton Oil Kings on Jan. 27 and he’s hop­ing for a chance to play against his best friend, 18-year-old right winger An­drei Pavlenko, who also hails from Minsk.

The Cougars (7-7-1-2) will have their hands full this week­end against the Gi­ants (12-3-2-0), who have just two reg­u­la­tion losses in their last 10 games.

“They’re a four-line bal­anced team and I know they have some in­juries but they’ve got some scor­ing power, no doubt,” said Matvichuk. “We feel the two games against Seat­tle were a spring­board for us and I thought we played well in both games. We have enough tal­ent up front to score with our hard work so it’s a mat­ter of keep­ing the puck out of our net. The huge thing was we elim­i­nated turnovers in the high-risk ar­eas and that was the dif­fer­ence.”

De­fence­man Cameron MacPhee is still out with an up­per-body in­jury but the Cougars are oth­er­wise healthy. Cen­tres Il­li­jah Colina and Ethan Browne and right winger Mike Ma­clean are back from in­juries and should be in the lineup tonight (7 p.m. puck drop). The re­match is set for Sun­day (2 p.m.).

MIKHALCHUK

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