Brooks Macek hadn’t been playing up to Tri-City Americans coach Jim Hiller’s standards for much of this season.
That is, until Tuesday night, when the 18-year-old had a goal and an assist to lead the Americans to a 3-1 victory over the Calgary Hitmen at Toyota Center.
Macek, who had 21 goals and 52 assists last season, had only one goal and five points through the team’s first 11 games.
“Brooks had his best game of the year,” Hiller said, “and that was a real important part for us tonight. He’s been in the doghouse for us, but he worked hard tonight. And when he works, he’s tough.”
Since losing three straight to open their seven-game road trip, Tri-City has won four of five, shaking out of the complacent play that Hiller saw during that slump.
“He got on us a little bit, and that got us going,” said Macek, who snapped a six-game goalless drought. “Something needed to be said. We were not close to our best. We weren’t even close to average. But we tried to work our way out of it, and we did.”
Drew Owsley made 34 saves, including six during a 5-on-3 Hitmen power play midway through the first period that set the tone for the game.
Owsley was one of several players who was on pins and needles during the first month of the season as the team sorted through its roster and what roles each would play.
With the release of goalie Alex Pechurskiy at Thursday’s WHL overage deadline, Owsley is now the undisputed No. 1 goalie on a team looking to return to the WHL Finals — where the Ams lost in five games to Calgary last year.
“The competition was good in practice, but it’s nice to get that cleared up,” Owsley said. “I think everyone is a little more calm now. Everyone was nervous when people were being sent home.”
F Mason Wilgosh made his season debut after missing the first 11 games with a broken jaw, while D Zak Stebner made his Tri-City debut after being acquired from Calgary on Thursday.
Both players saw significant time on both the penalty kill and power play, providing a veteran presence to both units.
“Willy was great. I thought he added something for the team,” Hiller said. “And that’s what we expect from Zak, about 20-25 minutes a night. When the pressure was on, he’s a veteran player who keeps his head and doesn’t panic.”
Still, with Kruise Reddick still day-to-day with a concussion and Brendan Shinnimin serving his 12-game suspension, Hiller said the best is yet to come.
“We still haven’t played with our entire team all season,” Hiller said. “It’ll be close to a month before we get our whole team together. Until then, we’ll patch it together. But we’ve been getting good minutes from people we didn’t expect to play this much.”
The list includes F Tanner Olstad, who teamed with fellow rookie Connor Rankin and Wilgosh on the second line, and F David Conrad, who was on the third line Tuesday with Macek and Adam Hughesman.
“Those guys came into camp just battling to make the team, and now they’re playing every third or fourth shift,” Hiller said. “I’m real impressed.”
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The Americans didn’t get to spend much time in the Tri-Cities. They returned from their seven-game road trip that included their East Division swing, got a couple days off, played Calgary, and now get right back on the bus for a 14-hour trek to Prince George for back-to-back games to start a four-game road trip.
Macek described the Prince George two-fer as “it feels like the playoffs. You have to play back-to-back in their rink, and by the second game, tempers get heated. It’s always a good battle.”
It should be even better this year as the Cougars are much improved from a season ago.
The Americans likely will be without Reddick for this weekend’s games. The captain said while he is improving, he still feels the effects of the head injury suffered vs. Brandon 10 days ago.
“We’re taking it slow,” he said, adding he’s hoping to return next week, when the Americans play three games — at Seattle on Tuesday, at Everett on Friday and home to P.G. on Saturday.
F Nils Moser also sat out Tuesday’s game with a shoulder injury. His status is also day-to-day.
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Tuesday’s game marked the regular-season return to the Tri-Cities of Calgary rookie F Trevor Cheek, who played for the Bantam AAA Jr. Americans in 2006-07.
Cheek attended Americans rookie camp the next fall. After being cut, the Vancouver, Wash., native played for Kent Valley Selects U-16 and then the past two seasons for P.F. Chang’s Hockey, a Tier 1 Midget team based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
He went to Portland Winterhawks camp last fall and was one of the last preseason cuts. The Hitmen listed him in late January and signed him in the spring. Tuesday marked his eighth game — he has no goals and two assists.
“The biggest adjustment is probably the speed of the game,” Cheek said. “You can’t take a break. You have to be skating the whole shift.”
Cheek appreciated his team getting a 5-1 win in Portland last week — a homecoming overshadowed by the return of Hitmen coach Mike Williamson to his former team — and has enjoyed getting to play in front of his extended family during the U.S. Division swing.
The Cheek family, as well as former teammates from the Jr. Americans and Kent Valley, took up almost two rows in Section H of Toyota Center on Tuesday, including his mother, Deana; father, Jerry; and three of his grandparents.
“This was perfect timing,” Deana said of the Hitmen having an early U.S. trip. “We didn’t get to see him too much (last season).”
Hitmen – Ams summary