The injury bug is creeping its way back through the Tri-City Americans lineup, though it hadn't effected the Ams very much on the scoreboard. That is, until last week's losses to division foes Seattle and Everett.
Tri-City came up empty in a pair of games against the top two teams in the U.S. Division. The absence of defenseman Juuso Valimaki, both on special teams and 5-on-5 play, is noticeable. At times this season the club has suited seven defenseman for games, something I noticed while Brandon Carlo was out during the World Juniors. They've gone back to the 7-defenseman rotation while Valimaki is out, with rookies Dakota Krebs and Kurtis Rutledge seeing consistent ice time.
The good news is, the losses were surrounded by a pair of home wins over Prince George, and the Ams' prized import defenseman should be ready for the playoffs, should they make it that far.
Here's a quick recap of the week............
Sanders shuts door in third to lift Ams past Cougars
The Americans' defense, despite missing rookie sensation Juuso Valimaki, suffocated the Cougars all night, limiting Prince George to only 12 shots though two periods. But Tri-City backup goalie Nick Sanders, getting a rare start, stood tall in the third with 14 saves en route to a 4-1 Ams win.
Sanders was tested little in the first two periods, as Tri-City built a 2-0 behind goals from Parker Bowles (35) in the first and Morgan Geekie (9) on the power play in the second. Jordan Topping added to his sensational sophomore season with his 26th and 27th goals in the third period, sandwiching the Cougars' lone marker.
There was a very scary moment in the game involving Prince George captain Sam Ruopp. Ruopp was trying to block a shot and got hit in the neck, sending him to the ice for several minutes. He was taken to the local hospital, where it was determined he suffered only bruising and was allowed to rejoin his teammates. He did not play in the final three games of Prince George's road trip.
Seattle opens 3-0 lead, holds off TC rally
Just like in Spokane on the previous Saturday, Tri-City yielded three first-period goals and couldn't complete the comeback in a 4-2 loss at home to Seattle.
The Ams were a step behind Seattle the entire first period, and the Thunderbirds did not miss out on their chances. Ryan Gropp gave Seattle a 3-0 lead on the power play at the 11:08 mark of the first, and Evan Sarthou's night was done. The second period was a different story, with goals from Nolan Yaremko (4) and Michael Rasmussen (13) drawing the Ams within 3-2.
But they couldn't net the tying goal, and star forward Mathew Barzal gave Seattle the cushion it needed with a third-period goal. The Ams out shot Seattle 29-27 but didn't mount much offense in the final period.
Ams dominate third, rout Prince George
Nick Sanders got his second start of the week, a first in his rookie WHL season, but he wasn't needed after the second intermission. Tri-City scored four goals in a span of 9:49 to start the third period on its way to a 7-2 blowout win.
The teams swapped goals in the first and second period, and with the game tied at 2, Jordan Topping notched his 28th of the season in the final minute of the second period.
Parker Bowles had yet another multiple-point game with two goals (37) and two assists. Vladislav Lukin continued his recent hot streak with a goal and an assist. Bowles, Lukin, Topping (again) and Yaremko (5) scored in the final frame.
As is the case in many junior hockey blowouts, the third period had an extra level of physicality. The game saw three fights, two coming in the final frame. Brandon Carlo was sucked into a rare fight after he leveled a Prince George forward along the boards. The Boston Bruins probably won't think to highly of their prized defensive prospect fighting with only 10-plus games left in his junior career.
Late goal sinks Americans in Everett
The Ams busy week came to a sputtering end on Sunday with a 3-2 loss on the road in Everett. Tri-City got on the board early in the first, but were badly out shot by the U.S. Division leaders and trailed 2-1 after a period.
After a scoreless second, captain Beau McCue notched his 22nd of the season off a Brandon Carlo assist on the power play to tie the score. But Dario Winkler potted a power play goal of his own with under three minutes left and the ‘Tips held on for the win. Sarthou stopped 27 of 30 shots.
All in all, not a terrible week for Tri-City. While they didn't gain much ground, they didn't lose any, either. Four teams are within striking distance in the Western Conference, and if they can stay healthy and continue the momentum of 2016, I think the Ams will make a solid push for the playoffs.
After Sunday's loss in Everett, the Ams still sit in 5th place in the U.S. Division and 9th in the Western Conference with a record of 30-29-2-1 (63 points). Tri-City is four points behind Spokane (29-24-5-4), five behind Portland (32-27-4-0), 12 behind Seattle (36-23-3-0) and 15 points behind division-leading Everett (36-21-4-2). The Ams are four points behind eighth-place Kamloops (29-25-5-4) and seventh-place Spokane in the race for the final two playoff spots in the West.
The Americans will stay west of the mountains after Sunday's game in Everett. Tri-City will take on the Thunderbirds in Kent on Tuesday and head to Portland for a Friday night matchup. The four-game divisional road trip ends where it started, in Everett, on Saturday. Seattle then heads to Kennewick on Sunday night to complete a busy yet crucial week for the Americans.
On the mend
No changes to the injury report. The Ams are still without Juuso Valimaki and Austyn Playfair (upper body injuries) for the next couple weeks, and don't expect back rookie Kyle Olson back anytime soon. His season may be finished.