The arena now known as the Sandman Centre always will be special to right-winger Brad Morrison of the Prince George Cougars.
After Wednesday night, it is even more special.
That’s because Morrison’s goal in the fourth round of a shootout gave the Cougars a 4-3 WHL victory over the Kamloops Blazers.
It came in the building in which the Prince George native made his WHL debut on Nov. 17, 2012. Morrison, the seventh
overall selection in the 2012 bantam draft, had one assist that night as the Blazers posted a 5-4 shootout victory. After the game, then-Cougars head coach Dean Clark bemoaned not using Morrison, who was then 15, in the shootout.
Mark Holick, who replaced Clark as head coach later that season, turned to Morrison in the fourth round last night. A 14-goal man this season, Morrison won it by tucking the puck through goaltender Connor Ingram’s pads.
“As I was skating down the ice, I looked to see where the goalie was,” said Morrison, who turned 19 on Monday, “and I noticed he left his five-hole open a little bit. So I decided to make a couple of moves and maybe get his legs to open up and slide it in. Luckily, it went in.”
With the victory, the Cougars (24-14-2) remained third in the Western Conference, two points behind the Victoria Royals (24-14-4). The Blazers (18-14-6), who are 1-3-2 since the Christmas break, are seventh but in possession of the conference’s first wild-card playoff spot. They are eight points behind the Cougars, who also are third in the B.C. Division.
“It was a big win,” said Morrison, a fourth-round pick by the New York Rangers in the NHL’s 2015 draft. “These guys are a tough team to play in their own building.We were aware of that coming in . . . we’ve had a couple of rough games here.”
In fact, the Blazers had been 3-0-0 against the Cougars here this season, including a 9-1 tattooing on Nov. 15.
That’s why Cougars head coach Mark Holick said that, while the win was nice, it also “was important how we played.”
“I thought we played a really good game,” he added. “Our zone time was good, aside from the penalties. Five-on-five, we spent more time in the offensive zone than we did defending.
“We had puck support all over the ice. I thought our entries were good and clean.”
Things really didn’t start out that way for the Cougars, who gave up a goal on the first shot on goaltender Ty Edmonds when left-winger Collin Shirley scored from the right side off a 2-on-1 that went bad but turned out OK for the locals.
“We got down early on the first shot,” Holick said, “and I thought Edmonds rebounded really well.”
The Cougars tied it later in the period when centre Jansen Harkins redirected a Morrison shot from the high slot past goaltender Connor Ingram, who had another terrific night as his guys were outshot, 40-25.
As Holick said, “I though Ingram was outstanding. I thought he was the difference for them.”
Kamloops head coach Don Hay wouldn’t disagree.
“The goalies were the best players on the ice tonight,” he said.
As for Ingram, who has started 33 of the Blazers’ 38 games, Hay was asked if he is the best goaltender in the WHL at the moment.
“He’s playing pretty darn well,” Hay replied. “I don’t know how other goalies are playing right now but he’s been good . . . he’s been lights out.”
Right-winger Deven Sideroff put the Blazers out front at 10:49 of the second period, putting the rebound of a Shirley shot behind Edmonds.
However, disaster struck the home side about six minutes later when the Cougars scored goals 11 seconds apart. First, left-winger Chase Witala, the WHL’s player of the month for December, got his 25th goal when he beat Ingram with a quick, hard shot to the short side.
Then, at 18:08, it was centre Kody McDonald firing a shot that glanced off Ingram’s catching mitt and dropped over the goal line.
Shirley — who else? — tied it with his 26th goal at 4:32 of the third, taking a nifty backhand pass from Sideroff and again scoring from the right side.
“Shirley must have 10 goals against us,” Holick said. “For some reason, he always finds a way to slip through.”
Actually, Shirley has 12 points, six of them goals, in six games against Prince George this season.
Kamloops again was without three key players — centre Gage Quinney and defencemen Dallas Valentine and Dawson Davidson — and for the first time head coach Don Hay acknowledged their absence is hurting.
“The difference was guys out of the lineup,” Hay said. “Those guys make a big difference when they’re in the lineup, and when they’re not, they make a big difference, too, in how we play the game.”
Quinney has missed six games, Valentine five and Davidson four.
The big difference, Hay said, has to do with the mindset with which the Blazers are playing.
“We’re not playing as assertive as we need to be,” he said. “It’s been building a little bit. We want to be more assertive with the puck and without the puck. Earlier in the season, we were harder on pucks and we stuck with it a lot longer.
“We’re going to try to work on it and get better at it.”
Those three won’t play this weekend — the Blazers are at home to the Tri-City Americans on Friday and then travel to play the Portland Winterhawks on Saturday and Sunday.
Valentine skated by himself twice this week and should be in a practice sweater today. He will make the trip to Portland but isn’t expected to play; rather, it’s hoped he’ll return Wednesday in Medicine Hat against the Tigers.
Quinney and Davidson won’t be on the trip, meaning they won’t play before the Everett Silvertips come to Kamloops on Jan. 20.
JUST NOTES: The announced attendance was 3,249. . . . The Blazers were 1-for-5 on the PP; the Cougars were 0-for-3. . . . The Blazers also scratched D Patrik Maier, who is enjoying a few days off after playing for Slovakia at the World Junior Championship. He should return in time to play in Medicine Hat. . . . The Cougars, who are 21-10-2 in their last 33 games, are 17-1-0 when leading after two periods. . . . The Blazers are 2-10-2 when trailing after two. . . . Prince George also is 9-2-0 in its last 11 road games. . . . The Blazers are 4-1-1 in the 10-game season series that resumes Jan. 22 and 23 in Prince George.
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