As the Tri-City Americans continued to raise their level of play the past few weeks, they embarked on the toughest road trip of the season.
Having won four of five heading into the trip, the young club has improved immensely since the beginning of the season. Evan Sarthou is settling in nicely to his starting goaltender role. Overage forward Mackenze Stewart has added some toughness and grit to the lineup since joining the team in December. The emergence of young players like Michael Rasmussen, and veterans like Vladislav Lukin, have also contributed to the team's recent success.
All the tools are falling into place for the Americans to make a run at the playoffs. After a very successful Canadian road trip, Tri-City continues to narrow its deficit in the Western Conference.
Here's a recap of last week's games for Tri-City.............
Ams begin road trip with win over Ice
The week started in Cranbrook against the short-handed Kootenay Ice. Tri-City dominated play for two periods but found themselves in a scoreless tie headed into the third. But goals from Vladislav Lukin (17) and Parker Bowles (30, empty net) helped Tri-City earn a 2-0 win.
The Ams poured 31 shots through two periods, but Kootenay goalie Wyatt Hoflin was up to the task. Hoflin finished the game with 40 saves as the Ams outshot the Ice 42-28. Kootenay, the league's worst team with only 22 points in 54 games, only dressed 17 players for the game. Evan Sarthou picked up the shutout in goal for Tri-City, stopping all 28 shots he faced.
Sarthou has really turned up his play since the start of the new year. He's won five of his last six starts and compiled a 10-5 record in 16 starts since January 1st. He will no doubt play a huge role in whether the Ams can make a run at the playoffs.
League-best Hurricanes beat Ams 5-3
Just up the road from the league's worst team (Kootenay) is the WHL's best in Lethbridge.
The Hurricanes proved a far greater test than Kootenay, and skated away with a 5-3 win over the Ams in an entertaining back-and-forth game.
This game had everything: multiple fights, momentum swings, loads of penalty minutes and a down-to-the-wire finish.
Tyler Wong potted a pair of goals for Lethbridge in the first, and the teams traded goals the rest of the way before an empty-netter ended the Ams' hopes. Vladislav Lukin scored twice and Tyler Sandhu also scored for the Americans.
Lukin's second of the game came on the power play and drew the Ams within 4-3 late in the second. But the Ams were outshot 12-3 in the third and couldn't find the equalizer. Sarthou had 23 saves in the loss.
Sanders, second-period flurry lift Ams over Rebels
Facing a squad filled with hired guns was a major test for the Ams on Saturday. The "hired guns" being the high-caliber players that Red Deer brought in for one reason and one reason alone: to win a Memorial Cup.
The advantage of hosting the CHL's biggest annual event, of course, is the local team gets to participate. So being the host of this year's tournament means the Rebels can stack their roster with as much all-star talent as possible.
Saturday night that talent faced a club on a roll, and the club on a roll kept it going as Tri-City used four second-period goals to win 5-2.
Down 1-0 in the second, Tri-City erupted with four goals in less than nine minutes. Michael Rasmussen deflected a shot from the point, then Jordan Topping, Tyler Sandhu and captain Beau McCue all scored within 65 seconds of each other and the Ams were rolling.
Nick Sanders got his first start in goal since January 9th and didn't disappoint. Sanders stopped 35 of 37 shots, including an astounding 15 out of 16 in the third period to take the win. It was his fourth win of the year, but more importantly kept the Ams within striking distance of the playoff race.
I always figured two wins on this road trip would be considered a success, and after this victory the Ams had their two wins with a chance for bonus points Monday against Edmonton.
Sarthou leads Ams in road trip finale
For a guy who has more fights than goals this season, Max James picked the perfect time to net his third goal of the season. James scored the game-winner against Edmonton while the Ams were short-handed in the third period on Monday and Jordan Topping added another in a 3-1 win.
Two days after Nick Sanders stood on his head against Red Deer, Evan Sarthou did the same in goal against the Oil Kings. Sarthou stopped all 12 shots he faced in the third period and finished with 26 saves. Sarthou has now appeared in 50 of Tri-City's 56 games this season, and is 5-1 in his last seven starts.
Parker Bowles got things going with his 32nd of the season in the first. Edmonton tied the score in the second before the heroics of James and Topping sealed the win in front of 10,812 at Rexall Place.
What it means
There's really no denying this was a hugely successful road trip for the Americans. Three wins in four games on the road against any opponents would be considered a success, but the quality of competition (minus Kootenay) was among the best the Eastern Conference has to offer. After early season struggles it appears Tri-City is playing its best hockey at just the right time.
At 27-26-2-1 (57 points) Tri-City still sits in 5th place in the U.S. Division and 9th in the Western Conference, but is gaining on the competition. The Ams are four points behind Portland (29-25-3-0) and Spokane (27-22-4-3), eight behind Seattle (31-22-3-0) and 13 points behind division-leading Everett (33-19-2-2). Tri-City sits just three points behind 8th-place Kamloops (26-22-5-3) and four behind 7th-place Portland in the race for the final two playoff spots in the West.
The Americans return home and get some much-needed rest during the week. Tri-City then hosts division-leading Everett on Friday night and travel to Spokane for a Saturday night matchup with the rival Chiefs.
On the mend
No changes to the injury report, other than the return of rookie defenseman Dakota Krebs from a brief absence.