Missing the playoffs is never the end result teams are looking for.
The Tri-City Americans missed out on the Western Hockey League playoffs by two points last weekend, watching their season come to a close with a 35-34-2-1 record. It is the first time they had been shut out of the playoffs since the 2002-03 season.
“It leaves an empty feeling in your stomach,” Americans general manager Bob Tory said. “We did not have a good start to the season: We had some injuries, and Brandon Carlo was gone to the World Juniors. We have no one to blame but ourselves. The players did everything they could at the end to make the playoffs. It’s a shame we fell short.”
Tri-City ended on a four-game win streak, but it wasn’t enough to catch Portland and Spokane, who each finished two points ahead of the Americans. Tri-City had more wins than the Winterhawks (34) and Chiefs (33), but the other teams had more overtime and shootout loss points.
“The players really did care, and they were devastated after having that exciting win (over Seattle) and then finding out they were out,” Tory said. “To go out and play the way they did in the final game (win over Spokane) really speaks to their character.”
Injuries besieged the Americans from the start of the season and never let up.
They lost rugged defenseman Riley Hillis for the season with a shoulder injury after just two games. Rookie forward Kyle Olson played 19 games before a lower-body injury shelved him for the rest of the season.
Add in Taylor Vickerman (15 games played), Austyn Playfair (30 games) and Brendan O’Reilly (37 games), leaving coach Mike Williamson to piece together lineups for most of the season.
Carlo also missed a few games with an upper-body injury, then was gone for a month while he played for Team USA at the World Junior Championship in Finland.
“It was two years in a row with that,” Tory said of the onslaught of injuries. “We never really got to see Kyle Olson, who is a dynamic young player. We lost Hills and Vickerman for the year and Playfair three times. We especially missed Hillis. He was a big part of our leadership group. He provided a lot behind the scenes. We are fortunate Jeff Rayman came in and established himself as a good player.”
When the Americans were healthy, they were a dangerous team. They had several three-game winning streaks, went 4-2 against the Central Division and 3-3 against the East Division. They also split their four-game series with the Victoria Royals, who won the Scotty Munro Trophy for the best record in the WHL.
“We had a lot of positives,” Tory said. “We had a lot of growth with (Nolan) Yaremko, (Juuso) Välimäki and (Parker) AuCoin, and Tyler Sandhu took his game to another level. There were a lot of things that are very promising. Going into next year, this is the most excitement we’ve had at the end of the season with how we finished and the young guys we have coming back.”
Tri-City saw Parker Bowles score 96 points and 39 goals. He finished sixth in WHL scoring.
Forward Michael Rasmussen finished with 18 goals and 43 points, putting him 14th in rookie scoring, but he was the top-scoring 16-year-old in the WHL.
“We haven’t seen a young player like that in a long time,” Tory said of Rasmussen. “He brings leadership to the team that people don’t see.”
On the blue line, Parker Wotherspoon ranked ninth in defenseman scoring with 11 goals and 56 points. Along with Carlo, they were one of the top shutdown pairings in the Western Conference.
The Americans will lose overage players Bowles, Beau McCue and Mackenze Stewart, along with Carlo, who has signed with the Boston Bruins.
They return a strong core of players, including goaltenders Evan Sarthou and Nick Sanders, forwards Jordan Topping, Vladislav Lukin and Morgan Geekie, and defensemen Wotherspoon, O’Reilly and Dylan Coghlan.
“We have created a culture here that is pretty special,” Tory said. “It’s sad to see guys leave. We expect the next group to step up. We are a community team. I’m proud of our players on and off the ice. These kids deserved the support of the community. They lay it on the line each and every night.”