Overtime thriller moves cougar men into playoff position

U of R Men’s Hockey Team making a run at the Playoffs. Brian Palaschuk

Brandon Holtby stops 41 of 42 shots

The Cougar men’s hockey team is on the verge of something that hasn’t happened since the 2012-2013 season: They are in playoff position. After winning just three games in the calendar year of 2019, the Cougars have been dominant in 2020. Beginning the year with a sweep of the Lethbridge Pronghorns, the men continued a strong homestand Jan. 10-11, trouncing the UBC Thunderbirds to extend their winning steak to four.

On Friday night the Cougars put on a terrific performance in front of a home crowd of 200 at the Co-operators Center. Scott Mickoski opened the scoring early in the first on an outside shot for his second as a U of R Cougar. The Cougars continued that momentum a few minutes later when captain Tristan Frei banged home a rebound courtesy of Turner Ripplinger. These high-effort goals have been the bread and-butter of the Cougars’ success and this weekend was no exception. At the end of the first, the Thunderbirds were able to get one back as a quick shot from Matt Revel snuck through Holtby on the short side to bring the game within one.

The Cougars of 2019 might have coughed up the lead after that change in momentum, but not the Cougars of 2020. In the second period they poured it on, getting two quick goals from Mickoski and Ben Duperreault. UBC tried to amp up their physicality to push the Cougars off their game, but the home team was having none of it. Feisty Mike Eskra took a roughing minor on the back of a cheap shot from Kyle Becker but drew a penalty of his own. This is the kind of response that good teams make, and the Cougars were looking like a good team on Friday night. Goalie Brandon Holtby did his job, stopping 14 of 16 shots and the Cougars extended their win streak to three.

After the fireworks at the end of Friday, Saturday was positioned to be a barn burner. 364 fans came out for the Saturday afternoon action and it didn’t disappoint. Both teams came out of the gate flying and the Cougars quickly racked up a couple of penalties but were able to hold their ground on the penalty kill. Jerret Smith solved Brandon Holtby at even strength by picking up a rebound with four minutes left in the first to give the Thunderbirds a lead that lasted until the end of the second. Landon Peel had a beautiful finish on a breakaway pass from Ty Barnstable to bring the game to a tie that would last for the rest of regulation. In the first overtime, Connor Chaulk was awarded a penalty shot but rang it off the post. The game was then decided in a 3 on 3 second overtime period where Brennan Riddle scored the game-winner.

Not to be lost in the forward’s heroics is the performance of Regina-born goaltender Brandon Holtby. The Leboldus High School alumnus stopped 41 shots and improved his save percentage in Canada West competition to 0.921. Holtby has been a huge part of the Cougars success all season long, posting a 6-7 record, which includes all six of the Cougars wins. For Holtby, the team’s recent success is the result of hard work and resilience.

“The past couple months our team has been playing really well together. I feel like we stick together better than in past years when we get down a goal and when other teams come at us harder that’s promising to see”

Holtby says the biggest change in the Cougars since the beginning of the winning streak has been their approach.

“I think attitude for the most part. Everyone likes each other and everyone’s having fun. It’s a great group of guys I think that’s going hand in hand with putting in the work at practice.”

However, for Holtby, there is no secret formula to the team’s success.

“I don’t think we’ve changed anything. Going into the break we played U of A, U of S, and U of C and I think we played all three of those top end teams strong. Even though we didn’t get a lot of points or wins to show we were going into the break feeling good about ourselves.”

While the team hasn’t changed anything major, they have certainly been getting much better, and Holtby is no exception. For the third-year netminder, being able to play week in and week out has been a great experience.

“It’s something new for me because I didn’t play WHL or anything like that, so the fact I’ve been able to do it has been awesome.”

Part of Holtby’s excellence is his consistency. Something that he speaks to not just for himself, but for the whole Cougars roster.

“We are very structured, and we have been playing really good defensively which makes it really easy for me.”

He is also quick to share the responsibility for his great numbers.

“I can’t take all the credit; that’s on the team.”

One of these teammates that is making a big difference is Christmas break acquisition Tanner Nagel. Nagel has added three points in just four games since joining the Cougars, and Holtby speaks highly of the new player.

“Getting Nags is huge, I actually played with him in Tisdale and you could see it from the first game he played with us. We love to have him here. He’s a hard worker, he’s a good kid, and I think he’s going to be huge going forward for us.”

Holtby also talks about the leadership group, starting with the captain Frei. With a team leading eleven points, he is a force both on the ice and in the locker room.

“If there’s one guy who cares more than anybody else its Freisy. He just brings a positive outlook on everything no matter what the situation and I think guys feed off of that.”

With the Cougars now in playoff position, for Holtby the next step is clear.

“We got to make playoffs. That’s the goal. I think that’s number one and I think for the next games we just have to keep the same mindset and keep doing what we’re doing.”

Their next challenge comes against the fourth-ranked Mount Royal Cougars Jan. 17-18.

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