The Tri-City Americans are riding high after earning five of six points on their three-game Central Division swing last weekend.
But riding an even bigger wave are the Portland Winterhawks (14-3-0-1, 29 points), who have won 11 in a row and host the Americans (10-8-0-2) tonight at the Moda Center.
“It’s a big challenge,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said of playing Portland. “Getting back on our feet at home was a big challenge. Going out on the three-game road trip was a big challenge. This game is going to be a big challenge. They just keep coming. We’ll meet them head on. So far the last couple of weeks we’ve met the last two (challenges) head on and done pretty well.”
Portland coach Mike Johnston said he watched the Americans’ last three games and knows it won’t be an easy game tonight.
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“They always play well against us.” Johnston said. “I thought their last three games they played very well. They have (Parker) Bowles back and they have added (Devon) McAndrews. That depth has strengthened their group.”
Tri-City may be sitting last in the U.S. Division standings with 22 points, but its just two points back of Everett, Seattle and Spokane, who all have 24.
With three key games against U.S. Division opponents this week — tonight at Portland, Friday at Everett and Saturday at home against the Silvertips — things could change in a hurry.
Portland, which got off to a bit of a slow start, has seen things turn around since the return of defenseman Derrick Pouliot from the Pittsburgh Penguins.Pouliot has played 14 games, scoring three goals with 12 assists and a plus-15 rating.
“At our level, first-round picks who have been playing NHL games, when they come back to your team, it makes a difference,” Johnston said. “How he manages minutes and handles the game. He has been a key guy since he came in the league. He is very sound. He’s not just an offensive defenseman, he’s very responsible in his zone.”
The Americans won three games at home before heading to Alberta, where they lost in a shootout to Medicine Hat and beat Lethbridge and Kootenay.
“It was a really strong trip,” Hiller said. “One hundred and eight-five minutes of hockey — with the overtime — and for 170, they were very solid. Nothing magical, we were just solid from start to finish. The tail end of the Medicine Hat game, they started putting us on our heels. That was our worst stretch, we were just hanging on. We didn’t get that feeling in Lethbridge or Kootenay. All three game were a little different.”
The Americans got a boost last week with the return of Bowles (shoulder injury), and the week before with the addition of McAndrews, who has one goal and three assists in five games.
“Parker makes a big difference for sure,” said Hiller, who put Bowles on the top line with Brian Williams and Connor Rankin. “He is very dangerous. He had a number of points, but he missed a lot of chances too. His skill and ability pushes the other team back and keeps them on their heels. That helps everyone.”
McAndrews, on a line with Marcus Messier and Jessey Astles, had a breakout game against Lethbridge with a goal, two assists and a fight. In the same game, Astles had two goals, two assists and a fight.
“I think our depth and balance is really strong,” Hiller said. “Jessey and Devon had the big night against Lethbridge. Purtz (Braden Purtill), Gutz (Justin Gutierrez) and Ty (Comrie) scored the first goal against Kootenay on Sunday. It was a good goal by all three of them.”
And while the scoring is picking up, the Americans’ goaltending remains strong. Eric Comrie has allowed two or fewer goals in 13 of his last 18 starts.
Comrie is sixth in the WHL in goals against average at 2.43, is second in save percentage at .927 and is one of six players tied for third in wins with nine.
Add in rookie Evan Sarthou, who allowed two goals in his first start and one in another.
“The goaltending has been excellent,” Hiller said. “If you keep the other team to two or even three goals, you are giving yourself a chance to win, and we are seeing that.”