Defenceman Michal Plutnar put the split in splitsecond on Friday night, squeezing every tick out of the clock by scoring with .03 seconds remaining in overtime to give the Tri-City Americans a 3-2 Western Hockey League victory over the Victoria Royals.
“That was pretty close to the buzzer and a bad way to lose the game,” said Royals captain Tyler Stahl.
Politically and geographically, eastern Washington has little in common with the Puget Sound area of the state that Islanders are more used to visiting. But there is some commonality through hockey — and there has been some good puck play across the Cascades recently with Tri-City boasting four U.S. Division titles in the WHL over the past six seasons.
Although in rebuilding mode after a season of heavy graduations that sent several players on to the pro AHL and ECHL, the Americans are still 22-14-3 and currently locked in a battle with the Royals (19-15-3) for the fifth and sixth seedings in the WHL’s Western Conference.
The opening act of the pivotal weekend set between Victoria and Tri-City went to the Americans before 5,489 fans Friday at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. The rematch is set for tonight at 7 in the Memorial Centre.
“We’re close to them [Americans] in the standings and trying to catch them,” said Stahl.
“But we didn’t get the points we wanted tonight.”
Both goaltenders were sharp as projected high-round 2013 NHL draft pick Eric Comrie of California made 27 saves for the Americans. Patrik Polivka made 31 stops for Victoria, but is probably ruing the overtime bouncer from U-16 and U-17 Czech national teammate Plutnar that slipped through his pads.
Forward Steven Hodges, whose speed bedeviled Tri-City all night long, made it 2-1 for Victoria at 4:26 of the third period but was stymied on several later chances by Comrie.
Defenceman and Winnipeg Jets draft pick Zachary Yuen pulled the Americans level on the power play at 10:38 of the third to send matters to extra time.
“It was definitely a tough loss,” said Hodges, a draft pick of the Florida Panthers.
“This was an important game for us. It’s kind of like a mini playoff series because of where both teams are in the standings. We need to have short memories and come out hard [tonight].”
An own goal, off the end boards and then the leg of Plutnar, was awarded to Victoria rearguard Jordan Fransoo 1:56 into the game. Plutnar, however, would be heard from at the other end of the game, as well.
Tri-City’s Brian Williams made it 1-1 with a quick shot from the face-off circle at 10:28 of the first period.
Victoria’s depth up front continues to be severely-stressed — with forwards Logan Nelson and Luke Harrison out for several weeks and Ben Walker day-to-day — but was aided by the return of leading scorer Alex Gogolev who contributed an assist and newcomer Trent Lofthouse making his Royals debut after being acquired Thursday from the Everett Silvertips.
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