The Prince George Cougars can breathe easier.
They found their Belrusian Santa Claus and he showed up at the rink at CN Centre Sunday afternoon bearing a gift they all could share.
Vladislav Mikhalchuk pulled the wrapping off that pressure-relief present from the slot, 7:49 into the game.
The 19-year-old Cougars winger from Minsk, Belarus, pulled the trigger and unleashed a barrage of soft toy selections and warm-winter clothing offerings for the Salvation Army, launched from the crowd of 3,614. His goal was the first of three first-period markers the Cougars scored on their way to a 5-3 win over the visiting Victoria Royals.
Mikhalchuk was set up in front by a backhand pass from linemate Josh Maser, who scored the goal that got the fur flying in 2017. Ilijah Colina did the grunt work along the end boards and dug the puck out to Maser and he fed Mikhalchuk standing in the slot for his seventh of the season.
“I couldn’t believe that, I was really excited to score that,” said Mikhalchuk, who scored two last week on the road against the Tri-City Americans. “We don’t have the Teddy Bear Toss in Belarus, they don’t even know about it.
“It was a nice pass by Maser, he found me. I just scored because it was almost an empty net. It gave us the lead and put us in a good mood to keep playing.”
After bottoming out the night before in a demoralizing 5-1 loss to the Royals at CN Centre, Mikhalchuk’s snipe was just what they needed to forget about a slump that left them pointless in four games.
The pressure of scoring what was officially called the Un-Teddy Bear Toss goal early in the game was obvious for a team that was showing signs of its youthful vulnerability, having lost three of its last four on home ice. From the opening puck drop the Cats already had glide in their strides. Mikhalchuk’s first of the game put smiles on their faces and they relaxed even more after that, posing for pictures with the stuffies they picked up off the ice.
“It was a big win for us,” said Maser. “Obviously lately we haven’t been playing our best hockey and tonight I thought we really brought it. It was a real good shift we were having and we had them kind of hemmed in their own zone.
“That was kind of the message before the game, just have fun out there. Lately we’ve been gripping our sticks too tight and it’s been costing us. We all love the game of hockey so we just had to play for fun out there and things will go our way.”
Maser and Colina each finished with a goal and two assists playing in the Cougars’ last home game of the 2018 calendar year. They won’t be back for a game until Jan. 9.
The Cougars kept pouring it on after the ice was swept of all that donated debris and they were rewarded near the end of the period with two more goals, 28 seconds apart. Defenceman Rhett Rhinehart picked an opportune time to jump into the play and entered the zone with Jackson Leppard, who waited until Rhinehart had a stride on Dante Hannoun before he fed him a perfect pass. Rhinehart finished with a high backhander to beat goalie Brock Gould, playing just his fifth WHL game.
Mikhalchuk collected his second of the game with 1:05 left in the period. Ethan Browne got the puck to him and he dropped to one knee to avoid the check of Ty Yoder and skated in on Gould, going forehand-backhand to tuck the puck in under the crossbar.
“Nights like that, if you don’t score early you just start putting more pressure on yourselves and that’s the last thing we needed after the way the last couple games went,” said Cougars head coach Richard Matvichuk. “I thought we were real aggressive the first six or eight shifts and then Vlad goes out and scores the big goal. It was a relief and guys started playing with confidence and we all know what confidence does to a young group.”
The Cougars started the second period under siege and Royals winger Tarun Fizer came close to scoring on a wraparound try 30 seconds in when goalie Taylor Gauthier lost his stick and his balance, but Austin Crossley was there to bail him out and got low to the ice to smother Fizer’s shot.
Fizer’s persistence paid off nine minutes into the period when he tracked down his own rebound and raised it in over a fallen Gauthier.
The Royals drew to within a goal a couple minutes later on a fluky play with three seconds left in Cole Moberg’s interference penalty. Hannoun broke in on the left side and with nowhere to go centred the puck into crease and it deflected in off Rhinehart’s skate.
The Cougars answered late in the period with a power-play goal from Colina to restore their three-goal lead. Colina, who also scored Saturday, took a pass from Rhinehart and fired off a wrist shot that beat Gould.
Most of the third period was played in the Cougars’ end and the shot count (13-1) told the tale. But only one of those 13 got past Gauthier. Matthew Smith snuck in a weak one along the ice from a sharp angle that went in between the goalie’s legs for the Royals’ third goal.
While Gauthier knows he should have stopped it, he had an otherwise solid outing and was thankful for his chance to reward his team after giving up four goals in the first period on Saturday.
“(Saturday) night was a tough one for everyone but we came out swinging and got the first one quick and just built off that,” said Gauthier, rated a B prospect for next year’s NHL draft. “It’s nice to see we were able to bounce back so fast. I’m happy the coaches have enough trust in me that they’re willing to put me back in after a rough night.
“Last night kind of hit me a little harder, not only because I have so much pressure from the draft but I hold myself to a really high standard.
“I’m very happy with how I bounced back today and gave the team a chance to win.”
Considering they’ll be living out of suitcases the next six weeks, having another win to relish was a critical accomplishment for the Cougars (11-14-1-2). They’re only one point behind the second-place Royals (13-10-0-0), who still have five games in hand over Prince George.
“Going on the road for awhile now, it might be a blessing in disguise,” said Matvichuk.
“This time of year it’s tough to play at home because you’re thinking about going home for Christmas so we’ll be able to manage their time and what they’re doing and do some team-building stuff and we’ll be alright.”
LOOSE PUCKS: The crowd count was a season high but it was the lowest ever for a Cougars Teddy Bear Toss game at CN Centre… The Cougars will hit the road for games in Portland Friday and Saturday… Mikhalchuk says there is one advantage to playing on the road – more chances to get noticed. “I like play away, more scouts,” he said. “Here in P.G. we are really far and not as many scouts come to P.G.”… Penalty timekeeper Steve Pudney was hit with the puck in the second period, which left him bleeding above his right eye. After getting repairs he was back at his volunteer post for the rest of the game. John Morrison, co-supervisor of the off-ice officials, presented Pudney with the puck that hit him, wrapped in white hockey tape which read: “First head shot,” and “with blood,” written in a red ink.
The Prince George Cougars can breathe easier.