The mood at the Tri-City Americans’ practice Monday at Toyota Center was light and fun.
You wouldn’t know by watching that they trail the Spokane Chiefs 2-0 in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs.
Game 3 of the best-of-7 series is tonight at Toyota Center, a must-win for the Americans, who have lost seven in a row dating back to the regular season.
“It’s not going to take anything that’s heroic by anyone,” Americans coach Jim Hiller said. “It’s going to take a good, hard game. It’s in us. The good news for us is we haven’t played well yet and we have played right with them. When we get our guys moving — everybody — then we are tough to beat. That’s what we are going to see (tonight).”
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The Americans will welcome back veteran defenseman Mitch Topping and forward Tyson Dallman tonight. Both made big contributions during the regular season.
“I think that will be a big boost for us,” Hiller said. “A couple of really good team guys, older guys. They are hungry. Experience always helps. Dolly is one of those whose value to the team his hard to measure in goals and assists. He is good in our room and he’s worked hard to get back and play. Mitch has had a great year and he’s been dangerous offensively. That’s one thing we need to do is generate more from the blue line and Mitch does that.”
Topping, who was injured March 8 against Kootenay and missed the last seven games of the regular season, led the Tri-City defensemen with 13 goals.
“It was frustrating last weekend watching from the stands,” Topping said. “You are an older guy who has been through a couple of playoff series and you want to do what you can to help. Getting back on the ice, it’s all great. Major improvements since the injury happened.”
With Topping out, the Americans brought in affiliate players Brandon Carlo and Parker Wotherspoon. Both saw considerable time in the first two games, with Carlo scoring Tri-City’s only goal in Game 1.
“Two young guys who came in and played as well as they did, they are going to be great players for us,” Topping said. “The fans will be treated to some elite defensemen here in a couple of years, for sure.”
The Americans had a full lineup at practice Monday, and Hiller will have his choice of lines and defensive pairings today.
“We had 23 skaters, five lines and eight defensemen,” Hiller said. “We haven’t had that since Sept. 1. It was nice. It was nice to see the faces. See the team be a team, minus Eric (Comrie) and Phil (Tot). At least there is a good healthy number of bodies.”
Now, the challenge is get them all on the same page.
“Everyone needs to be better,” Hiller said. “Our goaltending has just been OK. Our players have just been OK. We need better and you’ll see that (today). We are in our building and they are ready to play.”
Topping said the players have to take it upon themselves to turn the series back in their favor.
“It’s got to come from within,” Topping said. “The coaches can’t say anything else. It has to start with the leadership group and the young guys have to buy in. The young guys are going to find out real soon this is not like the regular season, They have to step it up their role a play within it.”
Spokane, which rallied back from a 4-3 deficit to win 6-4 in Game 2 on Saturday, has plenty of weapons with Blake Gal, Mitch Holmberg, Brenden Kichton and goalie Eric Williams. Topping said the Americans know how to beat them.
“They are a well-coached squad,” he said. “They came out flying at home in front of pretty decent crowds. Other than that, they aren’t doing anything too flashy. We knew what they were going to do and they executed well. We know how to shut that down, we just have to play our game. We know we can beat these guys, we just have to show it.”