It's a good thing cats have nine lives. The Prince George Cougars used up a third of theirs over the past three seasons, winning a total of 57 games -- including just 12 last year.
But this year's Prince George team is not the pushover it has been in the past, and looks to challenge the visiting Tri-City Americans tonight and Saturday.
"They aren't the Prince George of last year," said Americans forward Adam Hughesman, who leads the team with eight goals and 15 points. "They made some trades, got a kid out of college (Taylor Stefishen, Ohio State) and they have a really good team. It will be a test for us."
The Americans (8-3-1-0, 17 points) are ranked second in the U.S. Division, two points behind Portland. The Cougars (6-4-1-0, 13 points) are second in the B.C. Division, trailing Vancouver by one point, and they average 4.45 goals a game -- the best in the league.
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"I think we had quite the year last year, things just didn't go right for us," said PG coach Dean Clark. "We haven't had the injuries this year and our goaltending situation is settling down -- we had like 10 last year. Our young guys are a year older, and with a healthy Brett Connolly and the addition of some key people, we are a different team, even from three weeks ago. The atmosphere here is great and the kids are having fun."
Tri-City is 18-2-0-0 against PG over the last five years. The Americans' last loss to the Cougars was Oct. 3, 2007 in PG. The Cougars, who visit the Americans on Oct. 30, have not won at Toyota Center since Nov. 2, 2003. The span reaches 13 games, which includes a 3-3 tie on Feb. 6, 2004.
"It's a 14-hour bus ride when you win, but it feels like 28 when you lose," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller of the trek to northern British Columbia. "It's always a tough building to play in. It will be one of our biggest challenges of the season. They were young last year, but they have some key guys like (Brett) Connolly, and they have added some dangerous players."
Clark, who picked up his 400th career win Wednesday night against Brandon, said his team is ready for the challenge that the Americans will bring to the ice this weekend.
"I think this will be a good test for us," Clark said. "They are a good team and have been for quite a while in the league. If we make some of the mistakes we made (Wednesday) night against Tri-City, we wouldn't win. We have to be a lot better. Bob has done an excellent of retooling and they will be a team to reckon with come down to the end."
Connolly, who played just 16 games last year after nursing a hip injury most of the season, has 11 goals and 18 points in 11 games this season to lead the Cougars.
Despite missing most of last season, Connolly was drafted in the first round (sixth overall) of the 2010 draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"He's a game-breaker," Clark said. "He is averaging one goal game. He can change a game for us -- (Brendan) Shinnimin is the same kind of guy for Tri-City. We just didn't have that last year."
While Stefishen joined the Cougars from the college ranks, their biggest move came in getting defenseman Sena Acolatse from the Saskatoon Blades at the start of the season. In six games with PG, Acolatse has three goals and eight assists.
"Taylor has jumped in and onto our top line," said Clark, who noted that Stefishen had been on PG's protected list for some time. "He's a real mature kid. We are young team and we are lucky to have him fall in our lap. His scholarship (at Ohio State) got dropped and he was released from the team. He needed a place to play and we are happy to have him.
"Sena has been excellent," Clark continued. "He's a 20 that plays defense and forward and he's a tougher kid. He has really helped out our back end."
Shinnimin was selected to play for Team WHL that will compete against Team Russia in the Subway Super Series. Shinnimin, who is serving a 12-game suspension, will be eligible to play in the Nov. 17 game in Kamloops. His suspension ends Nov. 13. ... When the Americans pulled away from Toyota Center on Wednesday morning, they left behind Kruise Reddick (concussion), Shinnimin (suspension) and Neal Prokop (leg).