In a week when much of the country was taking time off, enjoying food and relaxing at home, the Tri-City Americans were busy at work.
Four games in five nights meant the busiest week of the season had arrived.
Unfortunately, it comes at a time when the Ams could least afford it. Injuries have ravaged the club's roster, evident in the lineup put forth by head coach Mike Williamson in games against Moose Jaw, Everett and two against Spokane.
First-round pick Carson Focht was forced into action - and his first career WHL game - in Tuesday's 4-2 loss to visiting Moose Jaw. He was joined the next day by fellow 2015 draft pick Seth Bafaro. Bafaro's first career WHL game was in Wednesday's 5-0 loss at Everett.
Focht, sporting a full cage since he's still only 15 years old, was impressive in his debut. He drew a penalty in the first period and later had a pair of fine scoring chances. General Manager Bob Tory and staff had to be pleased with his debut and future with the club. He should make a big impact as soon as next season.
I spoke briefly with Ams play-by-play announcer Craig West before Saturday's game and he raved about Focht and many of the club's youngsters. If the club can keep the core of young players together the future is certainly bright in Kennewick.
To the games......
Ams falter in third, lose to Warriors
With a great chance to defeat a top-tier Eastern Conference club to begin the week, the Ams couldn't close the door once again.
Dryden Hunt scored twice as Moose Jaw poured in four third-period goals to come back and defeat Tri-City 4-2.
The Ams were up 1-0 after two periods on Parker Bowles' 12th of the season, but the Warriors onslaught began just a minute into the third and culminated with Hunt's second into an empty net. Parker AuCoin notched the other Tri-City goal. Evan Sarthou stopped 34 of 37 in the loss, including 18 shots from Moose Jaw in the third. Moose Jaw played without star forward Brayden Point and starting goaltender Zach Sawchenko had the night off.
U.S. Division woes continue Wednesday
In the first of eight meetings with Everett this season, the Silvertips dominated from the drop of the puck in a 5-0 win. Carter Hart stopped 26 shots to record his fifth shutout of the season for Everett. Tri-City was outshot badly the first two periods before peppering Hart in the final frame, but it wasn't nearly enough.
It was the seventh straight loss to a U.S. Division opponent for the Americans.
Third-period comeback fuels first win over Chiefs
Leave it to the guys with the same name to score back-to-back goals from the same spot on the ice late in the third to steal Tri-City's first win of the season over rival Spokane.
Parker Bowles ripped a wrist shot past Lasse Petersen and Parker Wotherspoon followed with an eerily similar goal barely a minute later to lift the Ams past Spokane 6-5. Both goals came during a 4-on-4 period after matching penalties were called earlier.
The win ended a streak of seven straight losses to U.S. Division opponents and was the first win in four meetings this season with Spokane. It also avenged an 8-1 loss to Spokane in the Chiefs' last visit two weeks earlier.
"It was a huge character win, a win that we needed especially at home," Bowles said after the game. "It's a big rivalry so it's good whenever we beat the Chiefs. Obviously points are huge right now and it's a tight race (to the playoffs), so any points we can get in the division are huge."
Tri-City was down 5-3 after Adam Helewka's second goal of the night midway through the game. But Sarthou locked down the crease and Tyler Sandhu's goal shifted four minutes later momentum and Chiefs staring goalie Tyson Verhelst was pulled for Petersen.
"I thought our guys were ready to play. It was an invested group tonight," Williamson said after the win. "We dug ourselves a hole a few times, maybe a little over zealous at times and landed ourselves in the penalty box more than we wanted but our guys fought through and it was a big character win for us."
Williamson was certainly right about the excessive amount of penalties. As has been most of the season, Tri-City found itself in the penalty box far too often. The Ams were called for four minor penalties in the first period alone, and for the game allowed the Chiefs to convert 3-of-8 power play chances
"I think we're at our best when we're playing physical, so it's a fine line," he said. "I like when we play with an edge, but there was a few times where maybe we got a bit overzealous. We just have to find where that line is and stay on the right side of it."
Williamson also recognized the importance of winning the first divisional game in the last eight tries.
"If we're going to do anything (playoffs) we have to get some points in our division. We haven't done a very good job of that. So it was a big win, and good to get it done in regulation," he said. "There's too many divisional games not to have a good record. We've got a lot of games against them before Christmas and we need to put ourselves in position to win those games."
Spokane gets revenge Saturday
Tri-City found itself in a similar situation Saturday night in Spokane: trailing a goal late in the third period to the rival Chiefs.
This time the Americans magic ran out and Spokane skated away with a 6-4 victory.
Spokane turned a 3-2 lead into 5-2 in only two minutes on goals from Zwerger and Kailer Yamamoto to start the third period. Goals from Topping (11) and Michael Rasmussen (7) brought the Ams within a goal, but they couldn't get the equalizer past Verhelst and Zwerger added an empty netter late.
Bowles (15) and Wotherspoon (5) added the other Tri-City goals. Sarthou made 32 saves in the loss. Verhelst stopped 25 of 29 for Spokane.
The Ams continued to use a rotation of seven defenseman and 11 forwards, perhaps to keep depth amongst a group of mostly young players.
Tri-City sits with a 10-16-1-0 record (21 points), 5th in the U.S. Division and 9th in the Western Conference. The Ams are three points behind Portland (12-11-0-0), nine points behind Everett (14-7-0-2), 10 behind Spokane (14-10-2-1) and 13 points behind division-leading Seattle (16-7-2-0).
The Ams are five points ahead of last-place Vancouver (6-16-2-2) in the Western Conference. They sit four points behind Kamloops as they continue to battle to make the playoffs for the 13th straight season.
After a busy Thanksgiving week, things slow down a bit for Tri-City this week. The Ams visit Everett for a second straight Wednesday-night affair and head to Kent to face the division-leading Thunderbirds on Saturday. The two-game week will provide the club some much-needed rest and recovery.
On the mend
Not many updates on the injury front. Brandon Carlo returned to the lineup, while rookie forward Kyle Olson is expected back soon. Taylor Vickerman returned to the lineup last week and played well against Spokane. Another welcome addition once he returns will be Austyn Playfair, but he's still a couple weeks away. Defenseman Brendan O'Reilly is still a month or so away from returning.