This was not the start Dallas Ferguson envisioned when he accepted the head coach position with the Calgary Hitmen last summer.
The Hitmen have been stung by one-goal games early this season, but at the CN Centre in Prince George, the Cougars left no doubt, picking up the 7-1 decision Oct. 10.
The lopsided loss kicked off the Hitmen’s B.C. road trip and officially made it the franchises worst seven-game start to any season.
There were previous incarnations of Hitmen squads that started 1-4-2 and 2-5, but never 1-5-1-0.
The Cougars were coming off back-to-back home losses to the Kelowna Rockets and started 16-year-old netminder Taylor Gauthier against his hometown team.
Scoreless after one, the Cougars best chance came in the final minute of the frame. It came when Jake Kryski sent an errant pass up the middle of the ice and was promptly picked off by Cougars leading scorer Kody McDonald in the heart of the slot. McDonald was denied by the 20-year-old Nick Schneider, on overage deadline day.
McDonald would get another chance in the slot 1:08 into the second period, when he took a no-look pass from Jared Bethune in the corner, unleashing a snapshot past the blocker of Schneider. McDonald’s marker was only just beginning.
The Lethbridge product’s snipe marked the seventh time this season the Hitmen have surrendered the opening goal.
Nearly one minute and a half later, Belarusian rookie Vladislav Mikhalchuk came dashing down the left wing and rifled a shot above Schneider, who was cheating over in anticipation of a pass.
On the other end of the ice from the veteran Schneider, was a rookie who had a fairly easy night at the office, only needing to make 17 saves — three in the first period and two in the third period — for his first WHL win.
Gauthier was the fourth highest goalie ever to be selected in the WHL Bantam Draft when the Cougars selected him 10th overall in 2016. Last year, Gauthier went 11-3-3 with a .925 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average with a pair of shutouts for the Calgary Buffaloes of the Alberta Midget Hockey League, when he shared the ice with current Hitmen defenceman Andrew Viggars.
Through three games this season, Gauthier is now 1-2 with a 3.35 goals against average and a .844 save percentage.
Offence has been a bit of an issue for the Hitmen so far. Through seven games, their 19 goals ties them for 19th in the league. That lack of production forced Ferguson to switch up his lines by bumping Andrew Fyten up to the top line with Tristen Nielsen and Matteo Gennaro, sending Jakob Stukel down to play with Lucas Cullen and Kryski.
The issue hasn’t necessarily been volume, but efficiency. The Hitmen are a middle-of-the-pack team in shots for, but haven’t seen enough fall through seven games.
In Prince George, however, the problem was volume.
Making matters worse was a four-goal second period by the Cougars, putting a sputtering offence into a deep hole.
The Hitmen appeared to be finding their groove offensively in the second period, having directed 12 shots on the Gauthier. Ryan Schoettler took a holding penalty at the 10:20 mark, as the Hitmen headed to the power play.
But it was the Cougars that would pounce on a scoring chance, as the Hitmen turned the puck over at centre ice, Bethune gathered the loose puck and entered the offensive zone. Toe-dragging around a pair of Hitmen d-men, Bethune fired off a quick shot to beat Schneider for the short-handed marker with just under eight minutes to go.
It took the Hitmen’s hottest sniper to get his team going in the second. Matteo Gennaro netted a pair of power play goals against the Brandon Wheat Kings Oct. 8 at the Scotiabank Saddledome and found the magic touch once again.
Gennaro worked the two-man game with Jake Bean near the top of the zone, waiting for an opening. A little give-and-go action unlocked the slightest of seams for Gennaro, who threaded the needle, sniping his sixth goal of the season. His latest power play goal gives him goals in four of his last five games and points in six of seven games this season.
The Cougars killed any budding Hitmen momentum when Aaron Boyd edged Kryski in a Hitmen defensive faceoff. The puck came along the wall, before coming to Joel Lakusta, who unleashed a blast from the point. Schneider made the initial save, but Josh Maser had inside position on the Hitmen defender and a wide open net to pop in the rebound with 6.2 seconds remaining before the intermission.
Ferguson looked to spark the Hitmen by inserting backup netminder Matthew Armitage to start the third period, but he immediately picked up a penalty for playing the puck outside the restricted zone 17 seconds into the final frame.
The Cougars put the Hitmen to bed on McDonald’s second of the game, as he fired a changeup on net, as his stick exploded on the shot. Detroit Red Wings prospect Dennis Cholowski and Nikita Popugaev picked up the assists at the 9:37 mark.
Arimtage and the Hitmen allowed another short-handed goal, as Boyd netted his third of the season. Then, with time trickling away, McDonald pulled off the hat trick by banking a shot off the back of Armitage and in. The goal was reviewed but ultimately upheld at the 17:59 mark of the third.
The blowout was memorable for one member of the Hitmen. The first of the three meetings between the two teams officially became a family affair, as Hitmen second-year centre Kryski was playing against his younger brother Max for the first time in his career.
Max is playing in his first full season with the Cougars after appearing in a pair of games with the club last season. He has no points in five games this year.
Jake played in 34 games last season with the Hitmen, finishing with seven goals and 17 points. He has one goal and four points through seven games this season.
Luckily, for Jake and the Hitmen, they don’t have to look to far to forget this Prince George experience.
As Yogi Berra would say, it’s getting late early. While there is no need for Hitmen fans to panic, the team is approaching the end of their first 12-game pack this season. In the past, slow starting Hitmen teams have turned into playoff squads by year’s end. The good news for the Hitmen is that they get to take on one of the few teams with a worse start than themselves — the winless Kamloops Blazers tomorrow night.