The Western Hockey League’s Christmas break begins after a full slate of games Friday and Saturday night, and for many teams, the rest is much needed.
For the Tri-City Americans, the break comes as they finally are getting healthy after injuries to several key players during the first half of the season. Defenseman Brandon Carlo returned to the lineup, only to leave for Team USA’s World Junior camp. Forward Kyle Olson could play this weekend, and defenseman Brendan O’Reilly will be back in the new year.
“I think the break is always needed,” Tri-City coach Mike Williamson said. “The second half is always intense, and we are going to be in a dogfight with playoff positioning. It is a good time to step away and spend time with the family, and then come back refreshed and focused.”
But before Santa arrives, the Americans (13-18-1-0, 27 points) play a home-and-home series with the Seattle Thunderbirds (18-11-2-0, 38 points), who are tied atop the U.S. Division with the Everett Silvertips but have dropped their past two games.
Tri-City will play at Seattle on Friday night, while the Thunderbirds make the trip to Toyota Center on Saturday. Seattle is 2-1 against the Americans this season, but it will be without Alexander True, who was named to the Danish preliminary roster for the World Junior Championship, and Scott Eansor, who is at the U.S. camp with Carlo.
“These are winnable games, and we need the points,” Williamson said. “We have talked about that the last couple of weeks. The last seven games before the break are all against U.S. Division teams. We are trying to emphasize the importance of them. We’ve had a couple of big wins (over the Spokane Chiefs and Portland Winterhawks), and we want to try and carry that momentum into the last two.”
The Americans have won back-to-back games for the first time since beating the Vancouver Giants on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1. They have won three in a row once — Oct. 4, 7 and 9.
“They are feeling good,” Williamson said of his players. “I think they are excited about trying to build off of this.”
Americans captain Beau McCue, who lives a few miles from the rink, said getting away for a few days — whether it be 5 miles or all the way to Finland — is so important from a physical and mental standpoint.
“Obviously, it has been a busy first half of the season,” McCue said. “It’s nice for the guys to get to see their families and take a step back. They need time to let their bodies heal up and come back strong for the second half.”
While Parker Bowles leads the team in scoring with 18 goals and 41 points, players such as McCue and Tyler Sandhu, who had good starts to the season, have been struggling.
McCue, who led the team in scoring last year with Richard Nejezchleb, has five goals in his past 15 games. Sandhu has scored two goals since Oct. 23.
“It’s frustrating for myself, but it’s nice to see others step up, help out and taking the reins,” McCue said. “It is pretty awesome to see. I want to up my game and continue with the points and scoring, but I know it’s not all about that. If I continue to do my part, and the guys step up and do their part, we have a good, strong team. The older guys are coming back from injuries, and that gives us more experience. It’s nice to have a full lineup.
“We are really looking forward to having Olson back; he brings a lot of offense to the team,” McCue added. “With Carls (Carlo) being gone, we are wishing him the best of luck being up there representing our team and his country.”