Taylor Gauthier is likely the No. 1 reason the B.C. Division-basement-dwelling Prince George Cougars boast a 3-2 record against the Kamloops Blazers this season.
The 19-year-old goaltender from Calgary has a .954 save percentage in five games against the Blazers, who averaged 43.8 shots per game on Gauthier in those contests.
Kamloops (35-16-3-1) and Prince George (17-32-4-4) will play twice this weekend — on Friday in the Gateway to the North and on Saturday in the Tournament Capital.
Game time is 7 p.m. for the rematch at Sandman Centre.
“Our middle-lane drives are going be really important, pushing the defenders back into hard areas, redirecting some pucks,” Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston said.
“Their goalie has been really, really good. We have to do a better job with traffic, taking the puck to the net and being hard so we can get to the rebounds.”
Learning to solve Gauthier could help Kamloops nail down the B.C. Division crown.
The first-place Blazers have a seven-point lead on the Royals, with three games in hand on Victoria, and are nine points clear of the Giants, with one game in hand on Vancouver.
Kamloops has 12 games remaining on its regular-season schedule.
Numbers produced by unaffiliated Canadian Hockey League statistician Geoffrey Brandow dictate Kamloops has the second-easiest remaining strength of schedule in the league, with four games against the Cougars and two versus the Tri-City Americans, who are last in the Western Conference.
But the numbers don’t account for Prince George’s knack for upsetting Kamloops and a goaltender who has baffled the Blazers.
Clouston said goaltending coach Dan De Palma does a terrific job scouting opposing netminders, producing video and pictures players have access to before every game.
Defenceman Max Martin and forward Ryan Hughes echoed their head coach’s sentiment, suggesting the key is simple: keep shooting, affect the goaltender with middle-lane drives, create traffic and bang home rebounds.
“Their record probably doesn’t show how good of a team they are,” Hughes said. “They have a good goalie and he always seems to play well against us. We can’t take them lightly ever.”
Gauthier will not be going head-to-head this weekend against the Blazers’ No. 1 goaltender, Dylan Garand, whose lower-body injury lingers.
Clouston said there is a possibility the 17-year-old Victoria product returns to action next Wednesday against the Giants in Kamloops, but noted a return next weekend is more likely.
“Yesterday [Tuesday] was the first day he was going down,” Clouston said. “Like, he was already doing things from a down position, side to side, but he wasn’t dropping.
“That’s where we want to make sure he gets lots of time to work on those things, to challenge himself with those movements and be confident there is no risk.
“We’ll err on the side of caution — and then some.”
Garand is enjoying a stellar season, with a goals-against average of 2.23 and .922 save percentage in 39 games.
Backup Rayce Ramsay has carried the load in Garand’s absence, with a 3.41 GAA and .873 save percentage in 21 games.
Gauthier was named first star in each of the Cougars’ three wins over the Blazers, all of which came at the CN Centre in Prince George.
He was second and third star in the two losses, one at home and one away.
“We haven’t been getting to the middle of the ice and getting scoring chances at the net,” Martin said. “If we focus on that, we’ll be all right.”