A game in hand is only worth something if you earn the points that come with.
Working off one of their three games while Prince George is idle, the Tri-City Americans played one of their better games in quite some time. But it wasn’t near enough as the Portland Winterhawks skated away with a 5-1 victory before a Wednesday night crowd of 3,458 at Toyota Center.
“Not enough (good efforts) to beat what is a really good team,” said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. “Some guys really went for it, but not enough to beat them. To beat teams like Portland and Kelowna, you need to have every guy at the top of their game. We didn’t have enough of them.”
The Americans (28-30-3-5, 64 points), who lost their sixth in a row on home ice, still have a four-point lead over PG for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot with six games to play. The Cougars have four games remaining.
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Portland (48-13-2-3, 101 points), which had its 21-game win streak snapped by Seattle last weekend, already has sewn up the U.S. Division title and is nine points back of Kelowna in the race for the Scotty Munro Trophy for the best record in the league.
Facing a 3-0 deficit after two periods of play, the Americans got on the board just 48 seconds into the third as Rodney Southam’s heads-up play netted him his fifth goal of the season.
“Bowlsie (Parker Bowles) stopped the pinch up the wall, (the puck) came down to Beau (McCue) and he backhanded it off the far pad,” Southam said. “It was pretty easy for me — I was back door with a wide open net.”
The Winterhawks came right back as Nic Petan fed the puck across the crease to Paul Bitter, who had an open net behind Eric Comrie at 3:53.
Comrie finished with 39 saves and is 74 saves shy of tying the Americans single-season save record of 1,825 held by Aaron Baker (1997-98).
Portland would add one goal for good measure as Josh Hanson’s shot from the point found the net at 12:30.
“I thought the first period was really even and then we scored,” said Portland coach Mike Johnston. “In the second I thought we were better and picked up our game. In the third, they got the goal right off the bat, but I thought the key part was us responding to make it 4-1. That was a real back breaker there. At 3-1, they had a good chance at coming back.”
With just over 6 minutes left in the game, Southam dropped gloves with Mathew Dumba, who started the season in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild. It was one of two fights in the closing minutes.
“Pretty cool saying I got to fight him,” Southam said. “Tempers were flaring and he didn’t agree with a hit. It was good from what I remember.”
The Americans had the first two shots on goal to open the second, but would manage just one shot the last 15 minutes of the period.
At the other end, the Winterhawks kept Comrie plenty busy with 14 shots. Comrie stopped 13, but couldn’t knock the puck away when Chase De Leo chipped it past him at 5:40 to give Portland a 3-0 lead.
Midway through the second, the Winterhawks had their second power play of the game, but managed just one shot on goal as Tri-City’s penalty kill — ranked fourth in the WHL — continued its steady play.
The Americans put forth an honest effort in the first period with solid defense and a strong forecheck, but the Winterhawks were able to find the net to take a 2-0 lead.
Keegan Iverson opened the scoring for Portland as his shot from the right point flew past Comrie at 9:53.
Two minutes later, the Americans looked to even things up as Lucas Nickles took a pass and went in alone on Corbin Boes. Nickles went wide and Boes stopped him at the left post.
Justin Gutierrez suffered the same fate at 16:40, getting a couple of whacks at the puck at the top of the crease, but again, Boes turned away the puck.
The Americans allowed Portland’s top-ranked power play just one shot on goal late in the period, but shortly after the power play ended, Anton Cederholm picked up a rebound at the top of the slot off a shot by De Leo and fired the puck in the net at 18:56.
Note: Americans rugged forward Jessey Astles finished his seven-game WHL suspension Wednesday and will be eligible to play Friday against Everett.