The Tri-City Americans have proven they can beat Portland, and tonight would be a good time to take another game off the visiting Winterhawks.
Every point is crucial for the Americans (28-29-3-5, 64 points), who are hanging on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, with just a four-point lead over the Prince George Cougars with seven games remaining.
“Four points aren’t enough,” said Americans forward Brian Williams, who leads the team with 36 goals. “We want to be fortunate enough to seal our own fate. We may need to count on other teams to help, but we need to take care of things. A six or an eight-point lead would be better.”
Tri-City took a big step in helping themselves Saturday night, shutting out rival Spokane 3-0 on the road — and ending an eight-game losing streak.
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“I love playing in Spokane,” said Williams, who had a goal and assist in the game. “That was awesome for me. I think for the young guys, it shows that hard work does pay off. I spent the next day reflecting on what a good game that was for us as a team. A good stepping stone for the playoffs.”
During the eight-game slide was a 7-0 loss to Spokane and a 5-1 loss to Kelowna, but there also were five games lost by one goal — including one in overtime and two in shootouts.
To help turn things around, the Americans went back to their strength — defense.
“Defense was a priority last week,” Williams said. “We spent the week focusing on the defensive zone. It shows our hard work in practice paid off. When we were defensive like that, it created opportunities in the offensive zone.
“We have Eric (Comrie) in net and a really good young D corps and sometimes I think we take them for granted,” Williams added. “It was a lesson learned by the whole team.”
And just in case the team needed a little something extra, rookie defenseman Riley Hillis moved up to forward against Everett on Friday and against Spokane. His rugged play gave the team in a spark in both games.
“He gives us comfort and energy,” Williams said. “Friday, he blew a guy up and fought another guy 20 seconds later. The whole bench was electrified after that. We respect him for that. Riley is always champing at the bit to play. When he is in the game, he makes things happen. That is usually the role of an older player.”
Portland’s Nic Petan knows how tough it is to play against the Americans. In five games, he has three goals, and only twice in five wins has the score been lopsided.
“They are a very good hockey team,” Petan said of the Americans. They work really hard every night and we have to come ready to match that. And Comrie is pretty good, we have to get to him.”
While the defense and goaltending have been solid this season, scoring goals has been a work in progress. The Americans have scored 166 goals in 65 games (2.5 per game) — third fewest in the league.
Williams has 36 goals, but after that, Beau McCue has 19, Phil Tot has 15 (but he hasn’t played since Feb. 1) and Lucas Nickles has 16.
“Two inches here, two inches there. Sometimes things don’t go your way,” said Williams, who also leads the team with 11 power-play goals. “It’s hard to learn on your own. When I was 16, I watched (Brendan) Shinnimin and (Adam) Hughesman. Last year it was (Justin) Feser. Those are some big shoes to fill.”
While the Americans are struggling to stay in the playoff race, the Winterhawks (47-13-2-3, 99 points) have long since sewn up the U.S. Division title. They had their 21-game win streak halted by Seattle last Saturday — one win shy of tying the league record held by the Estevan Bruins (Oct. 6-Dec. 12, 1967).
Obviously, we were all excited to break the record,” Petan said. “We just have to get back on the train and start a new streak.”
Petan is looking for his second consecutive WHL scoring title. He shared the honor last year with teammate Brendan Leipsic with 120 points. This season, he is one point behind Spokane’s Mitch Holmberg, who has 107 points in 65 games.
Petan, who has 106 points in 56 games, has a chance to be the first player to win back-to-back scoring titles since Kamloops’ Rob Brown (1985-87).
“It’s always nice, but it’s not really something I think about,” Petan said.