(MEDICINE HAT, AB) – Veteran forward James Hamblin opened and closed the scoring Friday for the Medicine Hat Tigers in a 4-2 victory over the Tri City Americans that enabled the home side to clinch a playoff berth.
It was a gutsy win for the Tigers, a high-scoring group that found a way to win on a night when puck luck and a hot goaltender conspired to present an unusually challenging test.
“We can’t be completely proud with our effort,” Hamblin said. “But, a win is a win.
“They came out and played a really good game – that’s good on them – but we need to play our game. I don’t think we did that at times, especially in the second period.”
Tri City, now 17-33-4-1, had decent pressure in the Tigers zone during the first period and even nailed a couple of goal posts behind Medicine Hat goaltender Garin Bjorklund. But the Americans inability to find the back of the net bit them in the behind late in the frame.
Hamblin walked into the slot and chipped a backhand through heavy traffic in front of Ams keeper Talyn Boyko and the puck went in off the iron to make it 1-0 at the 19:18 mark.
Then 20 seconds later, the Tigers made it 2-0. Bryan Lockner fed Cyle McNabb in the Tri City zone and he got off a shot that bounced high off Boyko. Nick McCarry was able to swat the puck out of the air into the cage for his 13th of the season.
Medicine Hat has been a very good front runner this season, compiling a 23-5-1 record when scoring first. The Tigers have also been able to put games away with proficiency, going 19-5 when leading after 20 minutes and 23-2 when leading after two periods.
If the Tigers two goals scored in the final minute of the opening period served to dishearten the visitors, it certainly didn’t show in the second period.
The Americans narrowed the gap at 8:01 of the second stanza when Bjorklund couldn’t control a Connor Bouchard shot from close range. Jadon Joseph nudged the rebound in for his 11th tally of the campaign.
The Tigers continued to pepper the Americans net, drilling a goal post in the middle period. But it was Boyko, from Drumheller, who stood tall on the night. The 17-year-old was outstanding as he turned aside all 15 shots.
“I thought he played really well,” Hamblin said when asked about facing the Americans young 6-foot-six netminder. “I thought, especially my line, kind of just didn’t find the back of the net, so credit to him for that.”
Early in the third period, the Tigers scored a power play tally to make it 3-1.
With Aidan Lawson in the sin bin for cross-checking, Daniel Baker drilled a point shot along the ice. Boyko made the initial save but Lukas Svejkovsy swept in the rebound to put Medicine Hat ahead at the 2:12 mark.
The pesky Americans made it a one-goal game at 14:17. Joseph won a draw back to Luke Zazula at the point and he fed Sasha Mutala rink wide. Mutala’s blast, which may have changed direction, appeared to fool Bjorklund and the puck found the back of the net. It was Mutala’s 25th tally of the season.
The Tigers sealed the deal with 42 seconds to play when Hamblin outraced an Americans defender to a loose puck and stuffed his 35th of the season into an empty net.
While Tri City will not qualify for the post-season in the Western Conference, the loss was its first this season against a Central Division opponent. Curiously, the Americans are 8-19-1 on the road this season, but four of its victories have come against Central Division teams. In fact, the U.S. Division cellar-dwellers have beaten Edmonton, Calgary, Swift Current and Lethbridge this season. Tri City plays in Red Deer Saturday.
On the other hand, the Tigers can begin to prepare for the post-season and what continues to look like a first round match up with its Highway 3 rival, the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Medicine Hat, now 35-18-2-1, has endured an inconsistent February, compiling a 3-4-1 record after a solid 9-4 run through January.
“It’s really important to be going at the right time,” Hamblin said of the push to the post-season. “We’ve had a bit of a spell, whatever it’s been, we just need to find a way to get back on the rails.
“But as long as we find that before the playoffs, it’s all good.”
The Tigers will not face a Central Division opponent again until Mar. 3, when the Swift Current Broncos visit Canalta Centre. That game on home ice will mark the first of nine in a row against division rivals to end the regular season schedule.
Milestone for Plouffe
Defenceman Dylan Plouffe, 20, played in his 300th career regular season game. The Sherwood Park native, who played the first 272 of those as a member of the Vancouver Giants, reflected briefly on the achievement.
“Yeah, time flies,” Plouffe said. “The first couple of years was a little tough, we didn’t have the most winning teams.
“But just enjoying everyday with my friends and things like that has kind of flown by. I’ve had the time of my life and I wouldn’t take anything back from all of it. It’s just been unbelievable.”
Last season with the Giants, Plouffe and his mates lost in overtime of game seven in the league championship final series to the Prince Albert Raiders.
Now 28 games into his experience with the Tigers, he is hopeful to finish his career on a high note.
“It’s the total opposite kind of game here from what I was used to in Vancouver,” Plouffe said. ”It’s really fun and these guys are super skilled. I work hard every single day so that it’s easy to play hard. It’s sure been fun here.”
Ice Chips…Three stars were McCarry, Boyko and Hamblin…The Tigers outshot the Ams, 39-25…Bjorklund finished with 23 saves, while Boyko made 36 stops…Medicine Hat was 1-for-4 on the power play, while Tri City went 0-for-3…Jospeh chipped in with two points for Tri City. He grew up in the Sherwood Park area and is a long-time friend and former Giants teammate of Plouffe’s. The affair was his 245th career regular season game. Joseph, 20, leads all active WHL players with 58 playoff games under his belt…Medicine Hat scratched F Cole Sillinger (day to day), F Caleb Willms, D Damon Agyeman. Tri City played without F Paycen Bjorklund, D Krystof Hrabik, F Booker Daniel and D Mitchell Brown…Bjorklund, 20, who is listed as week-to-week with an upper body injury, is the older brother of Tigers rookie netminder, Garin…AP Jake Sloan took the warm up for the Americans, but the 16-year-old from Leduc, AB did not play. He collected his first WHL point Wednesday in Swift Current…The Tigers are now 18-6-2 at home this season and 17-12-0-1 on the road…Next home game for the Tigers is tonight when the Spokane Chiefs come calling for a 7:30pm start. The match up features Hamblin, who leads the Eastern Conference in both goals (35) and assists (49). He is tied for second overall in league scoring with Seth Jarvis of the Portland Winterhawks, 14 points behind Spokane’s Adam Beckman, who leads with 98 points…Through 26 games at home this season, Medicine Hat is averaging 2,933 fans per game.
1. MH Hamblin 34 19:18
2. MH McCarry 13 (McNabb, Lockner) 19:38
Penalties: MH Perna (hooking) 8:15. TC Greenway (tripping) 10:44.
3. TC Joseph 11 (Bouchard) 8:01
Penalties: TC Lajoie (slashing) 13:08. MH Baker (interference) 18:10.
4. MH Svejkovsky 16 (Baker, Gavlas) 2:12 (pp)
5. TC Mutala 25 (Zazula, Joseph) 14:17
6. MH Hamblin 35 (Van Impe) 19:18 (en)
Penalties: TC Lawson (cross-checking) 2:01. MH Baker (tripping) 7:51. TC Bouchard (cross-checking) 20:00.
Shots on Goal
MH: 15-15-9: 39
TC: 5-10-10: 25
MH: Bjorklund…18-5-1 (60:00) 23/25
TC: Boyko…5-10 (59:20) 36/38
Attendance at Canalta Centre: 2,858
Tigers Record By Division
vs Central Division: 14-9-1-1
vs East Division: 15-6-1
vs BC Division: 3-2
vs US Division: 3-1
Tigers Remaining Games vs Central Division (9)
Edmonton: Home 1.
Lethbridge: Home1; Away 1.
Calgary: Home 1.
Red Deer: Home 1; Away 1.
Swift Current: Home 2; Away 1.