There’s roughly six weeks left in the regular season, and in the U.S. Division, things are getting a little too close for comfort.
The Tri-City Americans, who have welcomed back players off the injured list, are making waves in the division and on Friday picked up two big points with a 6-3 home victory over the Portland Winterhawks.
“We scored some timely goals, but I thought we played better the other night,” Tri-City coach Mike Williamson said, referring to Wednesday’s 7-1 win over Victoria. “We relied too much on our goalie. We found a way to win a big game. We have to be a bit sharper tomorrow to win another one.”
The Americans (27-16-7-0, 61 points), who have won five in a row on home ice, still are third in the U.S. Division, but now trail the second-place Winterhawks (30-18-1-3, 64 points) by just three points. The teams play again Saturday in Portland.
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Friday, Tri-City got 39 saves from goalie Patrick Dea and rookie Riley Sawchuk scored a pair of late goals to help seal the win.
“It’s nice to have a lot of guys contribute,” said Williamson, whose team has won four in a row and has points in its past seven games.
Sawchuk scored his first goal with 3:06 remaining in the game to give Tri-City a 5-3 lead. With just 41.5 seconds left, he took off up ice toward an empty net when he got held up. He shot the puck, but was off the mark.
The officials awarded him the goal. In that particular situation, when the net is empty and the player is interfered with, the goal is awarded.
“I had no idea that’s how it worked,” Sawchuk said. “I have never seen that happen before. I was nervous for a penalty shot.”
For Sawchuk, it was goals eight and nine on the season. With guys out injured, he has gotten additional ice time and made the most of his opportunities.
“You have to build your confidence and work your butt off,” he said. “It’s a learning experience, for sure.”
Tied at 3-all with less than 5 minutes to play, Morgan Geekie took a beauty of a pass from Parker AuCoin and turned it into goal at 15:36 to give the Americans the lead for good.
“It’s tough to give up a one-goal lead, the momentum shifts,” Geekie said. “But we got it back. It’s nice to have a full lineup again.”
A bit of good fortune and a slick play by Nolan Yaremko helped the Americans take a 3-2 lead at the end of the second period, despite being outshot 33-14.
Trailing 2-1 midway through the second period, Tri-City took advantage of a puck left behind the Portland net by goalie Cole Kehler, who expected one of his teammates to pick it up.
Instead, Geekie gathered the puck and fed it out front to rookie Sasha Mutala, who in turn put the puck in the net at 13:14 to knot the score at 2-2.
“I think there was a little miscommunication there,” Geekie said. “He’s a good goalie. I took the puck, gave it to Sasha, and he did the rest.”
With just under 2 minutes left in the period, the Americans had the puck behind the Portland net. Yaremko, with his back to the action, maneuvered a no-look, between the legs pass to Isaac Johnson, who scored to give Tri-City a 3-2 lead at 18:48.
Tri-City held the one-goal lead until the 9:17 mark of the third, when Reece Newkirk stole the puck right off the stick of Americans’ defenseman Mitchell Brown and scored his second goal of the night.
In the first, the Americans found the net at 5:19 as Michael Rasmussen connected with Jordan Topping coming down the slot. Topping blasted the puck past Kehler for his 30th goal of the season and a 1-0 lead.
The Winterhawks fired 20 pucks at Patrick Dea in the first, but only one found its way into the net, off the stick of Newkirk at 16:06.
Dea had just turned aside a shot and the puck went to to his left, but just out of his reach. Newkirk was there to sweep the puck in the net.
Americans 6, Winterhawks 3
First — 1, TC, Topping 30 (Rasmussen, Johnson), 5:19. 2, Por, Newkirk 3 (Quigley), 16:06. Penalties — Texeira, Por (cross-checking), 11:13; Topping, TC (tripping), 13:33; Yaremko, TC (hooking), 19:35.
Second — 3, Por, McKenzie 39 (Bellows, Glass), 8:42 (pp). 4, TC, Mutala 8 (Geekie), 13:14. 5, TC, Johnson 15 (Yaremko, Välimäki), 18:48. Penalties — Bellows, Por (unsportsmanlike conduct-embellishment), 2:02; Clayton, TC (slashing), 8:19; Jokiharju, Por (hooking), 14:12; Coghlan, TC (interference), 14:16; MacEachern, Por (tripping), 19:43.
Third — 6, Por, Newkirk 4, 9:17. 7, TC, Geekie 19 (AuCoin, Bean), 15:36. 8, TC, Sawchuk 9 (James), 16:54. 9, TC, Sawchuk 10, 19:18 (en). Penalties —Mannek, Por (slashing), 6:25.
Shots — Por 20-13-9 — 42. TC 6-8-15 — 29. Power plays — Por 1-4. TC 0-6. Goalies — Por, Kehler 24-13-1-3 (28 shots-23 saves). TC, Dea 14-9-6-0 (42-39). Referees — Kevin Bennett and Mike Langin. A — 3,687.