Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Wet behind the ear WHL coaches clash

Jake Kryski looks to wheel and deal vs. Cougars
  • It isn't often the Prince George Cougars come into Kelowna on a massive high, but that will be the case tonight. The Cougars make their first visit to Prospera Place this season to face-off against the Kelowna Rockets (AM 1150 broadcast starts with pre-game show at 6:30). The Cougars, who the Rockets have feasted upon for points over the last five seasons (Rockets are 19-5-0-0), are undefeated with three wins and not a single stumble in the early stages of the young season. That's an impressive start no matter how you cut it. All three wins have come on the road. Under new head coach Richard Matvichuk, the Cougars won back-to-back games in Victoria last weekend and then managed to pull out a 7-6 win in Vancouver (Langley) last night. While the Cougars roster consists of an older group, they are winning without 19 year-old Jansen Harkins, who remains with the NHL's Winnipeg Jets. It's early, but three of the top five scorers in the WHL all come from Prince George. Granted they have played a league high three games, but the point is they are off to a terrific start and are playing with confidence. The Rockets will have their hands full, not only tonight, but over the next four games when the two teams meet again at the CN Centre Friday and Saturday night. 
  • Am I surprised at the Cougars start? Yes and no. Stealing two games out of Victoria was awfully impressive, but lets not forget that Prince George is built to win and they have no one to blame but themselves if this season isn't a roaring success. Get it? Cougars and roaring success? If you don't, I am not about to explain. They should challenge for the BC Division title this season. When was the last time they won it? The answer is NEVER.
  • I said at the start of the season the Cougars would have to improve in two key areas. They had to commit to team defense. Oh ya, it is great to score goals, but you have to defend if you want to win. That needs, and should change under Matvichuk's watch. The 43 year-old spent 14 seasons in the NHL in an effort to keep the puck out of his own net and made a solid career of doing it successfully. The Cougars were also guilty of taking terrible penalties. Leading the WHL in fighting majors, in today's game, never translates into success in the standings. Sure they won 36 games last year, but they were quickly disposed of in the opening round of lat springs playoffs and that likely cost head coach Mark Hollick his job. It will be interesting to see how the Cougars play the game under Matvichuk. As any new coach will tell you, it will be hard to change all of the bad habits overnight, but we should see a solid improvement in those key areas (commitment to defence/discipline) as the season goes along.
  • For the Rockets, finally some good news on the player personnel front where Braydyn Chizen and Devante Stephens return to the line-up. Chizen was with the Minnesota Wild while Stephens was in camp with the Buffalo Sabres. Neither saw an NHL pre-season game but coming back from a pro experience can only benefit these two players heading into a new season. This now gives Assistant Coach Kris Mallette more options on match ups and rookie d-man Konrad Belcourt will be eased into the league, not thrown into the deep end of the pool without a life jacket. Only Lucas Johansen remains at an NHL camp among the d-core, which will be the same group from a season ago that didn't feature a 19 or 20 year-old blueliner.
  • The most intriguing part of tonight's game is likely the two rookie head coaches. Jason Smith and Richard Matvichuk have a combined 30 years of NHL playing experience. The objective for both of them was containing the other teams top scorers as shutdown defencemen. They played against one another for years at the NHL level and now find themselves coaching against one another. Both Smith and Matvichuk are first round NHL draft picks (Smith by New Jersey, 18th overall - 1992. Matvichuk by Minnesota, 8th overall in 1991) and both played for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships. Matvichuk played in 2002 while Smith played a season later in 2003. Smith has a gold medal. Matvichuk does not. Matvichuk has a Stanley Cup ring. Smith does not. Smith was named the WHL's Top D-man in 1992-93. Matvichuk won the award a season earlier with the Saskatoon Blades (1991-92).        

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