Barely three weeks after hitting rock bottom, Mac Engel is red hot.
The Spokane Chiefs’ goalie made 26 saves to beat Tri-City for the third time in eight days and fourth time in a row, pulling out a playoff-style 3-1 victory Saturday night before 10,216 fans at the Arena.
“I’m just using the confidence I’ve gotten in the last couple of games, moving on, carrying it with me,” Engel said after his sixth straight win and eighth in nine games. “The guys are playing incredible in front of me. Everything that comes at me is getting blocked or it’s an easy save that I can see.”
That’s a far cry from how February started, when the 17-year old from Red Deer, Alberta, was thrust into the starting lineup because of an injury to James Reid, who was second in the league in goals-against average. After a couple of wins, the Chiefs lost back-to-back games to the Americans. Then there was that memorable disaster, a 10-5 home loss to Portland where Engel was yanked after four first-period goals.
“The team’s playing hard in front of him, he’s making the key saves,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “That’s what you expect from your goalie, give us a chance. It’s called development. He’s taken a step mentally, maturity-wise and technique-wise.”
Suddenly Engel is second in the league with a 2.41 goals-against average – with the help of three shutouts – and he definitely earned the first star against the Americans as the Chiefs (40-17-4-2, 86 points) remain one point behind Portland in the race for the top playoff seed.
“We just tried to keep our game simple in front of him,” defenseman Tanner Mort said. “When he was down on himself a little bit we tried to keep as many shots away from him as possible. Once his confidence started building, he can see as many shots as he wants. He’s playing really good in key situations.”
It was an intense, tight-checking game from the start, although the Chiefs probably had more chances than the Americans before finally breaking through late in the second period.
A nice pass from Levko Koper at the right circle to Dominik Uher at the left side of the net broke the ice.
“It was really important,” Uher said. “It was a home game and we got the crowd in it. They were amazing.”
On the first shift of the third period, Steve Kuhn broke in on Chris Driedger but the puck bounced out front to Matt Marantz who buried it.
The Americans (37-19-2-2, 78) got lucky shortly after that when former Chief David Conrad threw the puck out front and it deflected off a Chiefs’ stick into the net.
“(The key is) saying you’re stopping the next one, just keep on battling,” Engel said. “It’s still a 2-1 game for us. Don’t let them get any more. The next one is the biggest save of the game.”
The intensity never wavered until Uher scored an empty-net goal with a minute left.
“It was a tough game,” Uher said. “Two good teams playing good defensively, there’s not many goals to see. … It takes special teams to stay focused. We were prepared for this. It shows that we’re a pretty good team that can stay focused.”
With just nine games remaining, this game was a good learning experience.
“It was a grind out there,” Nachbaur said. “That was a playoff tempo. They played hard. We let ‘em hang around. We had chances to score and break it wide open, but that’s hockey.
“It’s good, though. You need to have those battle hardened games for the playoffs. It makes you tougher mentally. Our guys handled it well. They didn’t buckle.”