With first place in the Western Hockey League on the line, the Tri-City Americans and Portland Winterhawks kept the fans on the edge of their seats the entire night.
Taylor Leier scored two goals in the third period to lead the Winterhawks to a 6-4 victory Friday over the Americans before a sold-out crowd of 6,121 at Toyota Center.
"They made more plays than we did, and we made a few more mistakes," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller, whose team is 5-4 against Portland this season. "That's usually the recipe for a loss. Both teams worked hard and battled, but it comes down to execution."
Brad Ross added two goals and an assist for the Winterhawks (45-15-3-1), who took over first place in the WHL and the U.S. Division race with 94 points.
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"It had a sense early on that it was a first-place game," Portland coach Mike Johnston said. "It was tight checking with low shots. Then the skill started to show up and the transition attacks. Both teams made some good plays and had good chances. Teams like ours, the reason there are 100-point guys, is we have the ability to score. Both teams came to play."
Tri-City (45-16-1-2, 93 points) fell to second in the U.S. Division and third in the Western Conference behind B.C. Division leader Kamloops (92 points).
The Americans play at Everett tonight and will face Portland on Sunday at the Rose Garden.
"We will be ready for Everett," Hiller said. "They are scratching and clawing for a playoff spot, and we have to match that."
With the score 4-4 in the third period, Leier found the net at the end of a 2-on-1 with Oliver Gabriel to give the Winterhawks a 5-4 lead at 3:23.
The Americans had their chances, but missed a couple of wide open nets and Patrick Holland rang the puck off the pipe. With 4:13 left in the game, Tri-City went on the power play, but had a tough time getting set up, drawing boos from the fans.
"Credit them," Hiller said of Portland. "The guys on the power play have won us games time and time again, but tonight they didn't."
The Americans pulled goalie Ty Rimmer the final minute of the game for an extra attacker, but Leier added an empty-net goal with 15 seconds remaining to put the game away. Rimmer finished with 33 saves.
"It was two good teams going at it tonight," said Tri-City forward Justin Feser. "It came down to who made less mistakes, and we made a few more than they did and it cost us. We were short in the end."
The Winterhawks came out in the second period trailing 2-1, but it didn't take long for them to tie the game, then take a 4-2 lead.
Chase De Leo tied the scored at 2 at 5:22, and Sven Bartschi connected on the power play 1:25 later for a 3-2 lead. Ross gave Portland a 4-2 lead at 11:37 with his second goal of the night.
But, the Americans didn't back down.
Adam Hughesman started the comeback, taking a pass from Brendan Shinnimin in the slot, and put the puck between Mac Carruth's pads to cut the deficit to 4-3 at 12:28. With the assist, Shinnimin extended his point streak to 15 games.
With the Americans' third line on the ice against Portland's top line of Ty Rattie, Taylor Peters and Bartschi, Tri-City defenseman Zach Yuen tied the score.
Open at the right point, Yuen tapped his stick on the ice calling for the puck, and Nate MacMaster obliged. Yuen took a couple of strides to the high slot and blasted the puck into the net through a crowd at 15:42.
"We respect their offense and I think they respect ours," Ross said. "When you have a lead, you have to lock it down."
In an action-packed first period, the Winterhawks struck first, taking advantage of sloppy defensive play by the Americans at the blue line.
Brendan Leipsic picked up the loose puck and fed it to Ross cutting in from the right wing. Ross lifted the puck into the net at 12:26 for his 37th goal of the season.
Portland picked up its first power play at 14:01, but the Americans' top-ranked penalty kill threw a wrench into the Winterhawks' top-ranked power play as Holland picked off a Portland pass.
Holland fed the puck up ice to Justin Feser, who got behind Portland defenseman Derrick Pouliot and put the puck into the upper left corner of the net at 15:09 for the Americans' 15th short-handed goal of the season.
Tri-City would take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission, courtesy of Feser's second goal of the night.
Derek Ryckman held the puck in the zone and sent it into the right corner for Holland. Holland backhanded the puck off the back wall to Feser in the slot. Feser blasted the puck past Carruth at 16:33 for his 34th goal. With two assists, Holland has 99 points on the season.
"They have a great crowd and they use it to their advantage," Ross said. "We were able to calm the storm and come back on them."
Carruth finished with 22 saves for his league-leading 40th win, while Gabriel had three assists.
Hughesman played his 330th career game, passing Ian McDoald (329) for third on Tri-City's all-time games played list.
w Annie Fowler: 582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org