Until you have experienced the Tri-City Americans-Spokane Chiefs New Year’s Eve game as a player, you don’t quite know what to expect when you step on the ice.
Americans captain Justin Feser has played in three New Year’s Eve games (he missed his rookie year when he was playing for Team Pacific at the U-17 Hockey Challenge), and he said it never gets old.
“It’s always a fun game to look forward to,” said Feser, who leads the Americans with 21 goals and 44 points. “The building will be rockin’ and we can feed off that energy. My first one (New Year’s Eve game) is something I will never forget. I’ve talked to a few former players recently and they wished us luck. They miss these games and wish they could be back playing.”
This is the 23rd year of the series, which began in 1990 with a 6-5 Spokane victory. Tri-City leads the New Year’s Eve series 14-6-0-1 with one tie, including a 4-1 victory last year.
Even with the electricity of 6,000 fans flowing in the building, Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said there still is no calm before the storm.
“Coaches worry before every game,” Hiller said. “No doubt, it’s a special night for the players who haven’t played yet. The crowd lifts you. We have to score early to get them into the game.”
As of Saturday afternoon, there were less than 300 tickets available for tonight’s game.
While Feser is a veteran of the New Year’s Eve bash, Americans goalie Eric Comrie will be playing in his first. Last year, he was tending net for Team Pacific at the U-17 Hockey Challenge.
“I’m really exited to play in my first New Year’s Eve game,” Comrie said. “We are all really excited for the game and it’s a big one. Every game is a must win for us. Spokane is just ahead of us in the standings.”
The Americans come into the game at 20-14-1-2 (43 points), having dropped two consecutive 4-3 games to the Portland Winterhawks.
Spokane (24-11-1-0, 49 points) split a home-and-home series with the Kootenay Ice on Friday and Saturday, losing the final game 7-3 at home. The Chiefs are 4-1-1-0 against the Americans this season.
“The scores don’t tell the story of how we played in those two games,” Feser said of losses to Portland. “If we can just keep going game by game and getting two points at a time, hopefully we can climb back in the division standings and close the gap.”
Hiller agreed his team deserved a better fate.
“It’s hard to try and keep it in perspective because you want to win,” Hiller said. “We did a lot of things well. No one can hang their head after the weekend. We just have to go back out there for the next game.”
The Americans got a strong weekend from Connor Rankin, who had three goals in the two games. He is second behind Feser with 14 goals.
“Connor is one of those guys who can get it done,” Hiller said. “The second half is always a clean slate. Three goals in two games has to make him feel good and he can carry forward.
“We will have Marcus (Messier) back (tonight).” Hiller continued. “We have missed him on the penalty kill and in other areas. It was a blow to our team when he went out. He has been really important to us this year.”
Toyota Center has been Kryptonite for most teams in the WHL over the past six seasons. The Americans have won at least 27 homes game each year in that span, but the magic has worn off a bit this season. Tri-City is 9-7-0-2 at Toyota Center — including two losses to the Chiefs — and is 11-7-1-0 on the road.
“It’s a learning process for some of the young guys,” Feser said. “We’d like to have a better home record than what we have. It’s something we have to work on in the second half. We can’t complain with the way we have played on the road.”
Tri-City did win seven of its eight home games in November, but it has lost its last four home games.
“If you want to dig a little deeper, it comes down to the amount of goals that have been scored,” said Hiller, whose team is averaging 3.1 goals per home game. “We haven’t been flooding the gates at Burger Ranch this year. We need to score more goals.”
Tonight is a chance to turn things around.
The Chiefs, who are without coach Don Nachbaur, who is an assistant for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, are 2-4 in their last six games and have been outscored 23-18. They gave up seven goals to Kootenay on Saturday in a 7-3 loss to the Ice.
With 20 wins in 37 games, the Americans are on pace to tie the WHL record for most consecutive 40-win seasons with seven. Kamloops (1989-96) and Regina (1979-96) are the only teams to accomplish the feat. ... Over the last 25 years, the Chiefs lead the regular-season series with the Americans 147-127-2-5 with 13 ties. ... Regina defenseman Alex Theriau, 20, is retiring from junior hockey because of health concerns. Theriau underwent hip surgery in the off-season before joining the Pats on Nov. 14. He played 16 games with the Pats, but his hip couldn’t take the wear and tear.