Fellow players and coaches in the Western Conference voted Justin Feser the Best Overage Player in the annual Best of the West poll last weekend.
The Tri-City Americans captain lived up to his billing Tuesday night, scoring even strength, on the power play and short-handed — and he added an assist — but the Americans had to hold off the Vancouver Giants down the stretch for a 5-4 win before a crowd of 3,886 at Toyota Center.
“I think Justin Feser is the most valuable player in the Western Conference,” Vancouver coach Don Hay said. “He plays hard on both ends of the ice. He’s out there on the penalty kill and the power play. He made a big difference in the game.”
With their third consecutive win, the Americans (34-22-1-2, 71 points) leapfrogged Spokane into fourth place in the Western Conference standings.
Vancouver, which has lost four in a row, has the worst record in the Western Hockey League at 15-44-2-0 (32 points), but they gave the Americans all they could handle.
“We knew Vancouver would be a tough challenge,” Feser said. “Coming off overtime losses to Portland and Seattle, we know they will compete every night. Their record doesn’t show what they bring to the table. We have to respect them.”
With two goals already in the books, Feser capped the night with a beautiful short-handed goal.
He knocked the puck away from Vancouver’s Arvin Atwal at the blue line, pushed the puck up ice, whirled around Giants defenseman Tyler Morrison in the slot and beat goalie Jared Rathjen at 11:34 of the third period for a 5-3 lead and his seventh career hat trick.
“Those are tons of fun,” Feser said of short-handed goals (he has four this season). “You don’t get to try it too often and you hope you can pull it off.”
Rookie Jackson Houck, who scored two goals for Vancouver, potted the second with 2:17 left in game to pull the Giants within 5-4.
The Giants pulled goalie Jared Rathjen with 1:08 left to play, but could not get the equalizer.
“Give them credit, they played well and hung around,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said of the Giants. “We gave them lots and lots of chances to hang around.”
Tri-City opened the scoring at 7:39 of the first as Feser worked his magic behind the net to get the puck to Jesse Mychan at the right post. Mychan’s shot ricocheted off Rathjen’s right pad and put front where Malte Strömwall was waiting for an easy goal.
Feser, playing his 308th consecutive game, scored on the power play at 15:01, putting the puck over Rathjen’s right shoulder to give the Americans a 2-0 lead.
The Giants cut the Americans’ lead in half late in the period as Blake Orban slid the puck between Troy Trombley’s pads at 17:28. The goal was reviewed, then awarded.
Parker Bowles and Feser scored in the second to take a 4-2 lead into the third.
“Usually, it takes a team effort, but tonight our guys put the team on his back,” Hiller said of Feser. “He’s really, really good and more people need to know that.”
Trombley, who finished with 27 saves, earned his third win in as many starts.