PRINCE GEORGE – With four wins in their last five regular-season games, the Prince George Cougars entered the WHL playoffs on a roll.
Four consecutive losses brought that momentum to a grinding halt as the Kelowna Rockets swept the host Cougars in the Western Conference quarterfinals with a 4-2 win Wednesday night at the CN Centre.
Far from a pretty playoff series, mistakes were made on both ends. But for the Cougars, they were more evident.
The Rockets rose to the occasion when it mattered most, outscoring the Cougars 12-2 in third periods. And in the second and third games, the Cougars opened up two-goal leads late in the second period, but couldn’t hold on.
The result even surprised Rockets’ head coach Ryan Huska, who prepared his players for a seven-game series.
“To me, it was a funny series. It was a lot closer than four games, to be honest with you,” he said. “I thought Prince George worked very hard and they probably deserved a little better fate in some of the games. We got some good bounces and in the end, our third periods were good periods for us.”
The Cougars lost captain and leading scorer Brett Connolly early in Game 1, last Friday in Kelowna, with a shoulder injury. Two other Cougar forwards also watched from the bleachers Wednesday night – Charles Inglis and Nick Buonassisi were on the shelf with upper-boy injuries.
“We’re missing 100 goals that were sitting in the stands tonight too. It’s a tough thing,” said Cougars’ head coach Dean Clark. “You need all your best players and your best players have to be your best guys at the right time of the year. Our guys played hard. We just made too many mistakes and it cost us.”
Arguably the biggest momentum shift in Game 4 came in the early in the third period. Forward James Dobrowolski, a Vernon product, appeared to tie the game 2-2 when he lifted a backhander past Rockets netminder Adam Brown. But the referee waved off the goal, ruling that Taylor Stefishen was in the crease.
Shortly after, the Rockets scored to take a 3-1 lead. Forward Shane McColgan rushed into the Cougars’ zone, picking up his own rebound and sliding the puck past Cougars’ starter Ty Rimmer.
With two goals and an assist, McColgan led all scorers. Defenceman Zak Stebner (one goal, one assist) and forward Mitchell Callahan (two assists) were also big for Kelowna. Defenceman Damon Severson scored the Rockets’ other goal.
Forward Alex Forsberg, a Cougars call-up, got the home team within a goal 8:15 into the third. For Forsberg, the first overall selection in the last year’s bantam draft, the goal was his first in the WHL.
“That was nice to finally put it in after, I don’t know how many games, eight or so,” Forsberg said. “But it’s a tough loss for the team and organization, and you never want to be swept, especially when every game is close like that.”
Defenceman Sena Acolatse scored the Cougars’ first goal, a powerplay blast from the point that beat Brown high blocker side.
The Cougars outshot the Rockets 35-31 and finished 1-for-6 with the man advantage. Kelowna scored once on four powerplay chances.
With the sweep, the Rockets will get extra time to prepare for Round 2. If results go as expected, they will meet the Portland Winterhawks.
Rockets’ forward Evan Bloodoff has served his four-game suspension for charging Vancouver Giants’ defenceman Joel Rogers during a regular-season game on March 19, and is now eligible to play.
“We’ve got some time. I think we got to get some of the bumps and bruises out, and then I think it’s just the same sort of things we did leading up to this series,” Huska said. “Whoever we may get in the next round, we have to be ready to play, and play hard for 60 minutes.”