It’s crunch time in the Western Hockey League.
Games are scarce and points are precious as the season moves into its last three weeks of action.
Only two teams — Medicine Hat in the Central Division, and Regina in the East — have secured playoff spots, with many others battling to stay in the hunt, and those who know the playoffs are not on their radar this season.
The Tri-City Americans (35-23-3-0, 73 points), who have won four in a row, host a Portland squad Wednesday that has lost its past two games — both to Seattle.
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The Americans, third in the U.S. Division, trail division-leading Everett by nine points, and the Silvertips have three games in hand. Seattle, which is second, has an eight-point lead over Tri-City, with just one game in hand.
Portland (32-24-1-3, 68 points) sits five points back of Tri-City with one game in hand.
With 11 games remaining, the Americans have two with Portland, Seattle and Everett. They have three left against rival Spokane, and two against the B.C. Division’s Kelowna Rockets, and the Prince George Cougars, who lead the division with 80 points.
Of Tri-City’s final 11 games, seven are on home ice, including both games with Everett and Portland, and two of three against Spokane.
Whereas Tri-City is 7-2 against Spokane this season, and 5-3 against Portland, they are 1-5 against Seattle and 4-4 against Everett. The nine divisional games will be key going down the stretch.
“This time of year, it should be tough,” Americans coach Mike Williamson said. “You are jockeying for playoff positions and seeing who you match up against. There are no easy nights or opponents once the postseason begins. We’ve talked a lot from the start of the year about our record against U.S. division teams. Last year, that led to us not making the playoffs. These divisional games have increased importance.”
Before the Americans hit their four-game win streak, they dropped three in a row after forward Michael Rasmussen left the Feb. 1 game against Everett with a lower-body injury.
Rasmussen has missed the past seven games, and Williamson said he won’t be on the ice Wednesday night.
“We miss Razzy, just like we missed (Max) James and (Jordan) Topping earlier,” Williamson said. “For us to be successful is to find ways to win when guys are out. You have to make sure you don’t use it as an excuse. We want to make a good decision and not sacrifice our long-term game for something short term. Ultimately, we need him back and healthy.”
With Rasmussen on the sidelines, everyone has pitched in to help, led by leading scorer Morgan Geekie, who has points in nine of his past 10 games. He leads the team in scoring with 32 goals and 79 points.
The Americans also have gotten strong contributions from defensemen Dylan Coghlan, Parker Wotherspoon and Juuso Välimälki, and forwards Topping, Tyler Sandhu and Paker AuCoin.
Goalies Evan Sarthou and Rylan Parenteau also have stepped up their game.
Parenteau had 25 saves in a sterling performance in a 4-2 win over Seattle last Friday, and Sarthou followed Saturday with a dazzling 38-save night in a 5-1 win over Spokane.
“That’s what we expect,” Williamson said of his goalies. “That is a strength of our team. We have two of the best in the league and that should give us an advantage no matter who we play. That’s what we’ve seen the last four games. If they have an off night or are average, I don’t know if we win any of those games.”