Deep hole for Americans to dig out of

The Calgary Hitmen, boasting WHL goaltender of the year Martin Jones, were expected to hold at least a slight edge between the pipes during the WHL championships series with the Tri-City Americans.

The Calgary Hitmen, boasting WHL goaltender of the year Martin Jones, were expected to hold at least a slight edge between the pipes during the WHL championships series with the Tri-City Americans.

Through the first three games of the league final — all Calgary victories — the Hitmen, in fact, enjoyed a massive advantage in regards to puck stopping, but the Americans finally got a quality netminding performance Wednesday and pulled out a 4-2 victory at home.

Thanks largely to a 40-save effort from Russian goaltender Alex Pechurskiy, the Americans lived to see another day. Down 3-1 in the best-of-seven set, Tri-City can take the battle back to Kennewick, Wash., with a second consecutive win tonight in Calgary.

But, as big-time underdogs based on Calgary’s dominance through much of the series to date, they’ll need another brilliant outing from Pechurskiy.

Only one team in the history of the WHL has ever won a series after trailing 3-0 — the Spokane Chiefs topped the Portland Winterhawks in 1996. Americans head coach Jim Hiller knows his club faces a steep challenge, but he at least got to enjoy one victory, thanks again to his goaltender.

“From a fan’s perspective, that was probably the most entertaining game of the series,” Hiller told Annie Fowler of the Tri-City Herald following Wednesday’s contest. “A lot of people got to see what our goalie’s like and see us score some goals. Obviously the key point in the game was getting the first goal. Good goaltending and timely goals, that’s our recipe; that’s how we win games.”

Pechurskiy replaced starting stopper Drew Owsley in each of the first two games in Calgary after the latter allowed a total of seven goals on 24 shots. The 19-year-old from Magnitogorsk, Russia, has played every minute since the second period of Game 2.

“(Pechurskiy) was excellent,” Hiller said. “He made good saves when we need them. Calgary is a good team and we needed big saves and big goals. You can’t have one without the other. It’s been awhile since we had that combination working for us.”

Meanwhile, defenceman Michael Stone set a Hitmen franchise record Wednesday for most playoff games played. Stone appeared in his 71st post-season contest, eclipsing the mark set by former blueliner Alex Plante.

l Regular-season success didn’t equate to post-season success for Hardy Sauter, and that ultimately cost Sauter his job after two years as head coach of the Spokane Chiefs.

The Chiefs went 45-22-1-2 in the regular season with Sauter at the helm, but were eliminated in the second round of the 2008-09 playoffs and were ousted in the first round this spring.

“The best way to put it is you can’t hate something for the same reason you like it,” Sauter told Dave Trimmer of the Spokane Spokesman-Review this week, after being informed that the Chiefs would not be picking up the third-year option on his contract. “The expectations are high and although the regular season was fairly good, nobody, including me, likes the fact we didn’t make it past the first round of the playoffs.”

The Chiefs’ season ended March 31 when they dropped Game 7 of their Western Conference quarter-final to the visiting Portland Winterhawks.

“More than anything I wanted to try to make a decision that was not based on emotion at all; I wanted to give it some time,” said Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz. “The bitterness of losing was fresh. I wanted to get over the emotion of that. I wanted to make sure we were thorough with our exit meetings at end of the year.”

Sauter was hired as an assistant coach in 2007. After the Chiefs won the Memorial Cup the following spring, head coach Peters joined the Chicago Blackhawks organization and Sauter, a defenseman in the WHL for two seasons — including one in Spokane (‘91-92) — was given the head job.

Sauter was the head coach of the SJHL Nipawin Hawks for two seasons prior to joining the Chiefs.

“I’m going to absorb this, take a day or two to regroup, and go from there,” he said. “I don’t know what ‘go from there’ is but I’ll pursue a number of things and hope to land in the hockey world.”

l Kelowna Rockets pest Mitch Callahan has signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Detroit Red Wings.

Impressive, considering the California native was passed over in the WHL bantam draft and earned a spot with the Rockets as a walk-on in 2008. Callahan, selected by Detroit in the sixth round — 180th overall — of the 2009 NHL entry draft, scored 20 goals and collected 47 points last season while racking up 165 minutes in penalties.

“I’ve always felt I was a hard-working kid, I set some definite goals and always believed in myself,” Callahan told Warren Henderson of the Kelowna Capital News. “I’m not at the end of my goal yet. I’m going to work as hard as I can and keep this going.”

l The Swift Current Broncos have parted ways with assistant coach Tim Kehler.

“We would like to thank Tim for all his contributions to the organization,” Broncos GM/head coach Mark Lamb said in a press release. “He did a great job here and we wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Kehler was a Broncos assistant for three seasons.