The Kelowna Rockets make their final visit this season to Toyota Center tonight. The top-ranked CHL team has plenty of weapons at its disposal, while the Tri-City Americans are entering battle without a full arsenal.
Three key forwards are on the sidelines because of injuries and a suspension, leaving the Americans to piece together their offense.
“It has been an odd year this year,” said Americans coach Jim Hiller. “It is adversity, and we have been dealing with it for a while. It’s an opportunity for others; they just have to step up and fill the role.”
Among those watching from the wings is Kennewick native Taylor Vickerman, who is out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. He was scheduled to have surgery today.
“It’s been tough for him this year,” Hiller said of Vickerman, who missed most of the first half the season with a shoulder injury and has played just 30 games. “For a young guy, he’s been a reliable offensive player for us.”
Vickerman, 17, was acquired by the Americans from the Vancouver Giants during the offseason. He was hurt during the third game of the season and missed 25 games before returning Nov. 29.
“It’s disappointing,” Vickerman said. “But I got the opportunity to play and Jim gave me the opportunity out on the ice. I had fun.”After surgery, Vickerman is looking at months of rehabilitation before he can play again.
“They gave me a long, extensive recovery time,” he said. “I feel I will come back stronger. It will be a long, hard summer, but I’m ready for the challenge.”
The Americans also are without overage forwards Jessey Astles and Phil Tot.
Astles has four games remaining on his WHL-sanctioned seven-game suspension for a hit on a Spokane player Feb. 15, while Tot has a lower body injury. He hasn’t played since Feb. 1 at Red Deer, and his return won’t be anytime soon.
“Jessey brings a lot of things,” Hiller said. “Leadership, experience, physical play, and he has turned into an offensive threat. He is an important player for us.”
Tot leaves a big hole in the Americans’ offense. He is the team’s second-leading scorer with 15 goals and 21 assists.
“Phil is getting closer and he’s making progress,” Hiller said. “But the conversation today isn’t when he will play again. We just don’t know.”
Tri-City (27-28-3-4, 61 points) enters tonight on a six-game slide after a 3-2 shootout loss to Everett last Saturday. The Americans have won just two of their last 10 games, and among the losses is a 5-1 setback to Kelowna one week ago.
“We’ve got them fresh in our minds and they are a good team,” Hiller said. “That said, we have to play a better game. There’s not a big margin for error.”
The Rockets (49-9-0-4, 102 points) did the Americans a big favor Tuesday, beating Prince George 9-5.
Tri-City has a scant one-point lead over the Cougars (26-32-3-5, 60 points) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with four games in hand on Prince George.
The Rockets, along with Portland, Victoria, Seattle and Spokane, have already punched their ticket to the playoffs.
Myles Bell (39 goals, 68 points) leads the Kelowna offense — which has scored 260 goals — while goalie Jordon Cooke has a sterling 2.37 goals against average and a 33-6-0-4 record. Defensively, the Rockets have allowed just 160 goals (2.58 per game).
Note:> Americans goalie Eric Comrie has 1,607 saves this season, just 218 shy of tying Aaron Baker’s single-season mark of 1,825 set during the 1997-98 season. He ranks fourth in minutes played in a season with 3,106. A start tonight would move him into third, jumping over Tyler Weiman (3,129 in 2002-03). Carey Price (3,712, 2004-05) is second, while Chet Pickard (3,779, 2007-08) is first.