Americans take pride in penalty kill unit

Annie Fowler, Herald staff writerSeptember 30, 2013 

The Tri-City Americans still are trying to find an identity, and until they do, they will have to rely on what has been working for them to keep their heads above water.

The Americans, at 1-3-0-1 are last in the U.S. Division, and will test their luck against the Seattle Thunderbirds (3-1-0-0) tonight at Toyota Center.

“We are getting there,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said of getting everyone on the same page. “What we saw beyond that first night, is we have done a better job of playing defense. I think we understand we can score goals, but we have to make sure we take care of our end first. Not everybody has that same frame of mind, they all want to score goals. We take care of our end and let (goalie) Eric (Comrie) do his thing, we can score big goals.”

Helping cement the defense is the penalty kill, which ranks 10th in the Western Hockey at 80.8 percent, but in the last three games, the Americans have allowed just one goal on 13 opportunities (92.8).

“We got of to a slow start with that,” Hiller said of the penalty kill. “I know Prince George had two (power-play goals) and so did Spokane. Some guys are new in that role and some are taking on a bigger responsibility. We like where that is going. We are doing some good things.”

Heading up the PK are point man Marcus Messier and defenseman Justin Hamonic, who has a big sweeping reach on the back end.

“Those guys did it last year, albeit not as much,” Hiller said. “Now they are getting leaned on like Zach (Yuen) and Fes (Justin Feser) did last year. It’s a bigger responsibility. You have to be smart. You have to know when to go and when to conserve your energy. Those two guys have been around it enough to know that they have to set up.”

And both have embraced their newfound responsibility.

“It’s tough,” Messier said. “We have been playing a lot of high pressure PK, but you just have to get in lanes and go down to block shots. You don’t even think twice. It’s not going to feel good no matter where it hits, to be honest.”

So why do it?

“You get a good feeling when the boys give you a holler when you get back to the bench,” Messier said. “Somebody has to do it. You can never fill the shoes of Fes, that guy was incredible, but you do what you can. And you can’t forget about Coms (Comrie), he’s one of our best PKers back there. Justin and Nicks (Lucas Nickles) and Tops (Mitch Topping), we work hard and it pays off. A lot of attention to detail — sticks in lanes and blocking shots.”

While Messier takes a beating up front, Hamonic is the last line of defense before the puck gets to Comrie.

“I like being back there,” Hamonic said. “I can see the play develop and read where the puck might go. With my reach, I may be able to intercept the pass or take away a shot. It’s where I feel most comfortable and where I’m most effective.

“Marcus does a lot good job up top and not a lot gets through, but when they do I try to get in the way so Eric has a chance to make a save. ”

Brian Williams leads the Americans with five goals and eight points, while Connor Rankin and Beau McCue each have three goals. But until the scoring starts to come around, it’s back to the defense and special teams to keep Tri-City competitive.

“The penalty kill has been our strong point this year,” Hamonic said. “A building block. It’s something we can take pride in and build off of.”

The Thunderbirds have been getting balanced scoring from their top players, led by Alex Delnov (4 goals), Branden Troock (3 goals) and Connor Honey and Shea Theodore, who have two goals each.

Seattle is coming of a 10-4 loss to Portland last Saturday, but has given up just seven goals combined in its first three games, including four to Tri-City last Friday in a 5-4 shootout win.

“They have a lot of good forwards with depth up front, and their D-men can contribute,” Hamonic said. “They are a much improved team from years past. It will be a challenge.”

Topping is keeping his Making Awareness a Top Priority to Fes out Muscular Dystrophy alive this season, and Feser — who is playing in Switzerland — will continue to add $10 per Americans home win to the charity.

“That’s huge. I appreciate him doing that for us,” said Topping, whose charity raised $14,656 last year. “It’s very generous on his behalf.”

Notes Tri-City defenseman Zach Yuen signed an AHL contract with the Toronto Marlies on Monday, Yuen, 20, played four seasons with the Americans, playing 255 games with 30 goals, 89 assists and a plus-93. The Marlies open their season Saturday, hosting the Grand Rapid Griffins. ... Former Americans goalie Ty Rimmer was reassigned to the Quad City Mallards (Moline, Ill.) of the Central Hockey League by the Oklahoma City Barons (AHL) on Monday. Rimmer, 21, who attended the Edmonton Oilers camp, was assigned to the Barons on Sept. 22.

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