Going into tonight’s game with the visiting Kamloops Blazers, the Tri-City Americans find themselves in a spot they haven’t been in more than half a decade — at the bottom of the U.S. Division.
Granted, the season is just nine games old and just five points separate the Americans (3-5-0-1, 7 points) from division leaders Seattle and Spokane, which each have 12 points, but it’s never a comfortable feeling to be last.
“You want to be No. 1 all the time and you can’t be,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. “We haven’t been, but that has to be the goal. People have to get better. That’s the only way to achieve that. It doesn’t always happen. We have had good teams and not been No. 1.
“From the first day I came here, sitting in first or where we are today, there is a sense of urgency to get better, to become a better player. When you become a better player, you become a better team. That never changes.”
One player who offers encouragement in that regard is overage forward Phil Tot, who has points in his last two games, including a key goal in a 3-2 road win over Kamloops on Tuesday.
“He’s not showing up on the score sheet as much as he would like, but he’s doing a lot of things really well,” Hiller said. “He’s a solid penalty killer, he’s responsible all over the ice and he’s creating offense. We aren’t scoring in bunches, but he’s a player if he can get hot, he will score in bunches. He is creating three or four chances a night.”
Which is a testament to Tot’s hard work.
Nearly a year ago — Oct. 26 to be exact — Tot took a hit in a game against Seattle, suffered a concussion and missed the rest of the season. He played just 15 games last year.
In nine games this season, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Tot has two goals and one assist.
“He has played fearless,” Hiller said. “His offensive game is coming. He really could have a handful of goals, he’s had a lot of good chances. He has a good shot and he’s going to score.”
After missing 10 months, Tot put in the extra work to make sure he was ready for the season.
“I wouldn’t say I was tentative,” Tot said of his return. “I looked at some video and I was thinking about things. I was rushing things. I had a lot more time out there than I thought I had. I had to calm the play down. I see the ice better. After two months, it’s coming back. It’s been fun. I have enjoyed my time here. I missed it a lot.”
Strong games in Victoria and Kamloops have given Tot added confidence.
“That’s something that comes with playing often,” Tot said. “With all the time off, it takes awhile.”
The penalty kill is new for Tot, but with the help of veterans Marcus Messier and Justin Hamonic, he has adjusted just fine.“Our team takes pride in the penalty kill,” said Tot of the Americans, who rank eighth among the 22 WHL teams. “It’s fun to shut the other team down and prevent their top guys from scoring.”
The Americans have no choice but to be productive on the PK. They are averaging just 2.3 points per game, so keeping the puck out of their own net is crucial.
Brian Williams leads Tri-City with eight goals, including two hat tricks, while Beau McCue has four goals and Connor Rankin three. Only four other players have scored goals, and while they have come at key times, there needs to be more of a balance.
“We saw that with the last game,” Hiller said. “Brian didn’t score, Ranks didn’t score, Beau didn’t score. Those are our top three goal scorers. We got goals from other guys and we won the game. It always takes more than three guys. We don’t expect Brian to have a hat trick in every other game.”
The Americans are averaging 29 shots a game, but with only 2.3 goals, they need to be more aggressive on offense.
“I don’t know if there is one coach or one fan who would say ‘I wish these guys would pass a little bit more,’ ” Hiller said. “It’s a pretty common theme. It’s so hard to get a good shot that you want to take advantage of those. But there are some players who are always looking to find something better.”
The sooner they figure things out, the better. After tonight, the Americans play at Seattle on Saturday.
“I think our division is probably the best in the league,” Tot said. “We just have to take it one game at a time. Obviously, the B.C. games and road games outside the division are the ones we need to win. We have been right there with Spoke, Seattle and Portland. We just need to take it game by game and we’ll be fine.”