THUNDERBIRDS

Prince George heads to Seattle ready for a first-round series with Thunderbirds

Mar 24, 2016, 1:03 PM

The Prince George Cougars boarded their team bus Thursday morning to make the long trek to the ShoWare Center for Friday’s Game 1 of their playoff series with Seattle.

The Cougars have seen their ups and downs this season, with a strong first half and an inconsistent second half. As they sit on their bus, however, they know that the slate is wiped clean in the playoffs and what happened during the season is now just a memory.

“It’s a tough regular season,” Cougars head coach Mike Holick said. “It’s a long grind, especially here in PG with the travel. Playoffs are a lot of fun and everyone’s in first place today and we’re ready to get down to Seattle and get started.”

The Cougars bring with them a physical group of players who will try and take away space and time on the ice from the T-Birds. They also have some top goal scores like 20-year-old forward Chase Witala. The Prince George native potted 40 goals this season and became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

He’s the leader on the team and looking forward to chasing one last moment of glory in his junior career.

“It would be awesome,” Witala said of the prospect of a deep run. “I don’t have any more chances left, so it would be awesome to make a run in my last year.”

Witala and Holick have been through a lot in their time in Prince George. They’ve seen the franchise struggle while missing the playoffs three straight seasons to a new ownership group and newfound on-ice success.

This will be the second straight postseason appearance for Holick and the Cougars, and while they lost a five-game series last season in the opening round to Victoria, Holick thinks it was a positive experience.

“I think anytime you get into the playoffs it helps,” Holick said. “I thought we had a pretty good push against Victoria … it could have gone either way.”

They’re hoping that the lessons learned in that defeat will help them as they take on a red-hot Seattle club. It’s a Seattle club that they split the season series with at two games each.

The Cougars will bang you and the T-Birds shouldn’t expect them to change that up just because the playoffs are here.

“You want to be a hard team to play against,” Holick said. “You want to finish checks and be on top of guys. You want to take away time and space. Certainly penalty minutes have been something that’s come under fire here. We want to make sure that we’re not taking silly penalties.”

Prince George did take a lot of penalties during the regular season. The Cougars led the league with 1,292 minutes in penalty, which was nearly 300 more than the next closest Western Conference team.

Those kinds of numbers can sink a franchise, but the Cougars also feature one of the league’s best penalty-killing units, which have allowed them to survive the minutes. They managed to kill off 82.1 percent of their short-handed stints, which was good enough for third-best in the WHL.

With Seattle’s power play among the league’s best, it will be one of the key matchups in this series and the outcome could be determined by which club wins the special-teams battle. Holick wants his Cougars to play hard, but doesn’t want to see six or seven Seattle power-play chances each night.

When they do go short handed, Holick said it will take a group effort to stop Seattle’s power play.

“You start in net,” he said. “Your goalie is your best penalty killer and you’re going to give up an opportunity or two so you want to get that save. After that you’re looking at blocked shots and getting pressure.

“Try and pressure as much as we can within reason; we don’t want to just run after guy. You’ve got to respect the fact that they’ve got guys who can score some goals.”

Prince George can score goals as well.

Witala wasn’t the only Cougar to register 40 scores as Boston Bruins prospect Jesse Gabrielle also hit that mark. Seattle will also have to deal with center Brad Morrison, who reached 62 points this year, along with Winnipeg Jets prospect Jansen Harkins, who is a top-end play maker.

That kind of depth should lead to a competitive series.

“We had a pretty good season series with Seattle,” Witala said. “They’ve got some pretty high-end players, high-end forwards and D. We’ve got to work on shutting those guys down. I think it will be a pretty interesting series.”

The T-Birds have home ice in this round but the Cougars have surprisingly had some success at the ShoWare Center. Despite Seattle one of the best home teams over the past several seasons, Prince George has found a way to win. The Cougars have skated away with eight wins in the last 10 games they’ve played in Kent.

The ShoWare crowds are loud, but that’s not always a detriment to the visiting players.

“It’s been awesome,” Witala said of playing at the ShoWare Center. “We love playing down there; it’s pretty exciting. It’s loud and a lot of juice, so it’s going to be fun to play those two games down there this weekend.”

After the first two games in Seattle, both clubs will have to make the long trek back to Prince George for Games 3 and 4. The travel is real and could become a factor if the series goes to six or seven games.

“If you’re looking for intangibles in the series, maybe that’s an advantage,” Holick said. “We’re certainly used to it. We’ve been on the road quite a bit. Our shortest trip is six hours, so we’re used to getting on a bus and getting to a town ready to play.”

It’s a good matchup on paper between these two teams, and starting Friday night we’ll find out how good it turns out to be on the ice. Game 1 gets going at 7:30 at the ShoWare Center.

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