Prince George avoided the broom.
The Cougars from British Columbia, losers of three straight Western Hockey League games to the Spokane Chiefs, finally broke through in the final meeting of the year between the teams Friday at the Spokane Arena, winning 5-2.
Prince George, unhappy with its performance in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss, had a day off in Spokane Thursday and skated on fresher legs.
“It’s hard to beat a team four in a row, especially when you play them on back-to-back nights like this,” Spokane center Derek Ryan said. “You get to know each other too well and know what they like to do.”
Prince George kicked its game into high gear in the final period, scoring three times, including one into an empty net in the final minute.
In the process, the Cougars solved their Michael Grabner problem. The Spokane right winger, the WHL’s player of the week, scored eight goals in the first three meetings with Prince George – scoring a hat trick at Prince George in December and another Wednesday in Spokane’s 5-3 victory.
Friday night, however, the hard-skating Austrian was held scoreless and, despite several breakaway chances, spent much of the night with a Cougar draped over his back.
The Chiefs, holding on to a slim hope of catching the second-place Tri-City Americans in the U.S. Division standings, are nine points back with nine games to play after the Americans won at Prince Albert.
“We have to flush this one and get ready to come back out (tonight) against a divisional opponent,” Ryan said. “We can look at the tape and try to learn from this loss, but we have to come back hard.”
The Chiefs, 32-24-4-3, cap a three-game homestand against the Portland Winter Hawks, who have been eliminated from the postseason.
“We just made too many mistakes and put ourselves in a hole again and couldn’t climb back out,” Spokane coach Bill Peters said. “We don’t make the smart play in our own end on the power play and we make the block out on a simple face-off in our own end. You can’t keep coming back from mistakes like that and tonight we couldn’t.”
For the second straight game, Prince George scored its first goal while Spokane was on the power play – with the same player capitalizing on the same mistake by the Chiefs’ defense.
Left winger Eric Hunter pounced on a lazy, cross-ice pass at the blue line between Spokane defensemen, skating in on goalie Kevin Armstrong to direct a backhand off the goalkeeper’s leg pad. Dana Tyrell was there to poke the rebound home to give the Cougars a 1-0 lead that held up for the remainder of the first period.
The Cougars took a 2-0 lead 1:13 into the second period. Center Jared Walker redirected a beautiful slap shot from the point by defenseman Jesse Dudas off a face-off in the Spokane end.
Spokane climbed right back into the game by scrambling hard in the Prince George end.
Captain Adam Hobson picked the puck off the boards, found some open space inside the face-off circle and backhanded the puck over the glove of goalie Scott Bowles to halve the deficit at 2-1 just 3 minutes into the period.
Ryan did the same thing in the final minute of the second period, finding open space in the same spot and rifling a wrist shot past Bowles.
“We had the momentum after the second period but we let them take it back,” Ryan said.
The Chiefs could not contain a rebound in front of Armstrong 3 minutes into the final period and Jordie Deagle pounced on it to give Prince George the lead.
Tyrell scored his second goal of the night, beating Armstrong on a breakaway at the 15:30 mark. Hunter capped the scoring with the empty-net goal.
Cougars 5, Chiefs 2
First Period—1, Prince George, Tyrell 24 (Hunter), 8:26 (pp). Second Period—2, Prince George, Walker 22 (Dudas), 1:13. 3, Spokane, Hobson 13 (Rutherford, Wahl), 3:09. 4, Spokane, Ryan 23 (Lenoski, Bruton), 19:01. Third Period—5, Prince George, Deagle 5 (Hohmann, Fuller), 2:42. 6, Prince George, Tyrell 25 (Gardner, Dudas), 15:30. 7, Prince George, Hunter 22, 19:03.
Power-play Opp.—Prince George 0 of 5; Spokane 0 of 4. Saves—Prince George, Bowles 10-11-8—29. Spokane, Armstrong 12-10-10—32. A—8,305.