by JIM SWANSON
Citizen Sports Editor
One worn cliche in particular is ringing true in Cougarville these days it truly is more fun to come to the rink now than it has been in recent years.
As the Prince George Cougars prepare to take a run at leap-frogging the defending WHL champions this weekend, there is no question the rosier circumstances surrounding the Cats have had a positive effect on the atmosphere in the bowels of CN Centre.
Were believing more, and weve proven that we can play with everyone, said centre Nick Drazenovic, whose team takes to the ice tonight against the Kelowna Rockets, looking to make up the two-point edge the Rockets have on the Cougars.
Its a better feeling going into a weekend like this when you know you can take the two games and be ahead of Kelowna. You hear it all the time, but when youre winning it is more fun and the atmosphere is much lighter.
It is a perspective not lost on the veterans. Three long winters in a row yielded nothing more than last-place finishes, and the competitiveness of the B.C. Division indicates this Cougars team is, even for how well it has been playing, one losing streak away from sliding to that spot again. Its the cruel reality of a team with 11 more wins than losses but still a long way from having a playoff spot sewn up.
A lot of pressure falls on (the veterans), and you can see with our leaders in the way they handle themselves that theyre proud to be on a winning team, said Drazenovic.
Assistant coach Stew Malgunas chalks it up to a maturity, the likes of which he hasnt seen from a Prince George team in his three-plus years on the bench.
Last year was desperation, this year were more relaxed hockeys a lot more fun when youre winning than when youre on the cusp of disaster, said Malgunas, who has yet to be part of a WHL playoff game as a coach.
In my coaching and playing career, Ive been on the outside looking in at times and its a horrible feeling, struggling like that. Everyones mad and down all the time.
We have our eye on Kelowna and were only eight points out of first, and who knows what could happen if we went on a winning streak here. Guys like Hunter, Nick, Walker and Featherstone, and I could name more, really have a passion that has been rekindled. They look hungry, they have that look in their eyes.
Theres a lot more focus than Ive seen here before. We dont have any bad seeds, guys we have to be checking curfew on constantly. I think if someone ever missed curfew I think it would be taken care of in the dressing room before (the coaches) had to.
The optimism does dissipate when the topic of injuries comes around. To their credit, the Cougars have been battling through an horrific string of problems Andy Rogers, Jesse Dudas, Dan Gendur, and now Evan Fuller and Ty Wishart are out of the lineup. The three-game winning streak, matching the ride Kelowna is on, is the epitome of making the best of a bad situation.
Wishart is listed as questionable for the weekends games, the result of a hit in Tuesdays game in Vancouver. Hell have to get the doctors clearance to suit up.
Malgunas will have to wisely distribute the icetime, getting the right players on the ice while not overworking the horses Devin Featherstone, Kalvin Sagert and Curtis Cooper.
You cant have any bad matchups and you cant get your inexperienced guys out there against their top lines, said Malgunas.
Being at home (and having last change) helps. Featherstone and Sagert will have to play every second shift, no doubt about that, and they know that. But you know what? A guy like Ray Bourque did that all the time, and Chris Pronger does it now. I know when I played, I wanted to be out there every second shift, or Id be upset. Theyre in good shape.
Malgunas spoke Thursday about how Curtis Patterson stepped up and played his best hockey to date against the Giants, and that converted winger Kirk Meaver and rookie blueliner Chris Vanduynhoven now have to be ready for the challenge.
The Cougars wont have winger Jamison Orr around this weekend. Hes returned to the BCHLs Williams Lake Timberwolves, but could come back in the future. Malgunas said Thursday there were no plans to bring in a list defenceman.