The Tri-City Americans won back-to-back games to finish off the first half of the season with 20 wins, but the second half doesn’t get any easier as they open with a home-and-home series with the Portland Winterhawks.
The Americans (20-12-1-2, 43 points) host the U.S. Division-leading Winterhawks (29-5-1-0, 59 points) tonight, then will play at 3 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Coliseum.
“Two buildings we hadn’t won in yet before the break,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said of the wins at Spokane and Seattle. “That sent us off in the right frame of mind for Christmas break. Now we have Portland. What a way to welcome us back. They are missing a few of their top guys, but that comes with the territory of having high-end players.”
The Americans are 1-3-0-0 against the Winterhawks this season, with Luke Lee-Knight picking up the win in goal during a 3-2 victory in Portland. Both teams had players returning Thursday and could be a little rusty this weekend.
“You just have to accept you won’t be as sharp,” Hiller said. “You have to play a very simple game the first couple back.”
Hiller said he expects Marcus Messier to return to the lineup after missing the last seven games with an upper body injury. Phil Tot, who has been out of action since Oct. 26 with a mysterious upper-body injury, is not expected to play this weekend.
“I will get an update on both when I get to the rink,” Hiller said.
Portland begins the second half of the season shorthanded as defenseman Seth Jones is playing for Team USA, and forward Ty Rattie and defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
Also, Winterhawks forwards Keegan Iverson and Dominic Turgeon are playing for Team USA in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Victoriaville and Drummondville, Quebec.
“It will be a challenge,” said acting head coach Travis Green, who is filling in for the suspended Mike Johnston. “Not only are we missing players, but we have three in four nights to finish the year.”
Portland has won six consecutive games coming into tonight, and Green is optimistic even with a short bench.
“We played well in Spokane (last game before the Christmas break),” Green said. “I thought our team responded well. They played in situations they hadn’t in the past, and guys stepped up their play. We are scrambling right now, and Derrick Pouliot won’t play because of an injury.”
Even if the Winterhawks drop a couple of games before their tournament players return, they have a 12-point lead over Spokane and a 16-point cushion over the Americans in the division standings.
“We don’t look at it like a lead,” Green said. “We don’t look at the standings. We will go into these games with the mindset that we will play our best. Our expectations are we are going to win. You do the right things and good things will come.
“Tri-City is one of the better teams in the league. They are always tough games when we play Tri-City. We have to bring our best game if we want to win.”
Even with Jones, Rattie and Wotherspoon gone, the Winterhawks still have leading scorer Nic Petan (24 goals, 36 assists) and No, 2 scorer Brendan Leipsic (22 goals, 345 assists) still in the lineup, as well as veteran goalie Mac Carruth (16-2-0-0, 1.80 GAA, .935 save percentage).
Note: Vancouver Giants goalie Liam Liston, 19, announced his retirement earlier this week so he can pursue a law degree at the University of Alberta. He was 1-10-0-0 in 11 starts with a 4.53 GAA and .836 save percentage. That leaves Tyler Fuhr, 17, and rookie Payton Lee, 16, to man the net for the Giants (9-25-0-0, 18 points), who have the worst record in the WHL. Lee is at Under-17 Challenge with Team Pacific.