Cats one point ahead of Victoria in race for final Western Conference playoff spot

It’s the last weekend of the Western Hockey League season and in the Western Conference, only the top five teams in the Western Conference have guaranteed playoff spots.

The Prince George Cougars are still in the game for the playoff dance, with the Vancouver Giants and Spokane Chiefs, with the Victoria Royals on the outside. All four teams are in their final two games this weekend.

The Giants (24-38-4-0) are currently sixth in the West with 52 points, one point ahead of seventh-placed Spokane and eighth-placed Prince George, who share identical records of 24-38-4-1. The Royals (22-38-5-1) are just a point behind Spokane/Prince George, having fallen one playoff spot to ninth on Sunday afternoon when they lost 2- 1 against the Cougars at CN Centre.

The win, in front of one of the biggest crowds of the season, certainly lightened the mood around Cougarville and the Cats know they can control their own destiny, but it won’t be easy. They will face the fiery Kamloops Blazers on Friday in Kamloops, then head to Kelowna to complete their schedule against the Rockets.

“It’s basically do or die,” Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb said. “We have been in this situation for a long time. When you win a big game like that it’s really exciting and we’ve won a few this year. That’s why we’re in the position we’re in this weekend.

The Cougars will be monitoring their phones for results from other conference games that will decide playoff positions. Spokane is in Victoria for games Friday and Saturday, Vancouver plays Kelowna on Friday and visits Kamloops on Saturday.

The Blazers still have a chance to be first overall in the Western Conference. They are three points behind the No. 1 Everett Silvertips, who still have road games at Portland on Friday and Tri-City on Saturday. Third-placed Portland could edge the Blazers for second place, but the Winterhawks have just one game left.

The Cougars (3-5-2-0 in the last 10 games) are much improved the last time they played the Blazers – a 4-3 overtime loss at the CN Center on April 3 – compared to the the teams’ last meeting on Kamloops ice was March 30, when the Blazers crushed Prince George 8-2.

“They’re so deep and a lot of things have to go right,” Lamb said. “You have to play with your systems and limit their chances, but they are going to have their chances. There is no special secret to beating them.

One thing the Cougars have going for them is that Tyler Brennan will be available to play. The 18-year-old from Winnipeg, ranked by NHL Central Scouting as the top North American goaltender available for the 2022 draft, has missed three games with an upper-body injury. Lamb has yet to name his starter for the Kamloops game, but if Brennan is up to it, expect him to get the call. Ty Young, a 17-year-old rookie, played well in his absence, allowing the Cougars to earn four of a possible six points in those three games with one win and two overtime losses.

“Ty brought us here,” Lamb said. “We don’t know yet who will play.”

The Cougars will be without RW Blake Eastman, still out week in week with a knee injury. They brought in 16-year-old defenseman Tyson Buczkowski from the Saskatoon Contacts triple-A midget team. He finished the season with four goals and four assists in seven playoff games, having scored eight goals and 32 points in 42 regular season games. Buczkowski was a 2021 Cougars first-round pick, picked 15th overall.

The Cats have four other prospects training with the team, including goaltender Madden Mulawka, defenseman Ephram McNutt and forwards Gavin Schmidt and Zackary Shantz.

The Blazers have three players on the injured list – F Luke Toporowski (lower body, day-to-day), D Marco Stacha (upper body, undefined) and F Ethan Rowland (upper body, day-to-day).

In the WHL’s Eastern Conference, four teams are still chasing the eighth and final playoff spot. The Swift Current Broncos (26-35-5-2) are currently eighth with 59 points, one point ahead of the ninth-ranked Calgary Hitmen and two ahead of the 10th-ranked Regina Pats and 11th-ranked Prince Albert Raiders. The Broncos and Hitmen each have just one game left, Regina has three games left and the Raiders are down to their final two. Sixth-placed Brandon still has a chance to catch Saskatoon for fifth.

“It’s going to come down to one last weekend and there could be a tiebreaker on both sides,” Lamb said, referring to tight stalemates in every conference.