Ams hope to ring in 2011 with victory

By Annie Fowler, Herald staff writerDecember 31, 2010 

The hottest New Year's Eve party in town is sold out.

Tickets to tonight's Tri-City Americans game with the Spokane Chiefs were gone three days ago. As of Thursday morning, there were around 150 standing-room only tickets available in the Sunset Room and Lounge, where a $15 ticket will get you a view of the game on TV.

The annual matchup between the two U.S. Division rivals is now in its 21st year. Tri-City (21-11-1-1, 44 points) leads the New Year's Eve series 13-5-0-1 with one tie. The Americans have won the last three games, including a 5-2 victory over Spokane (21-10-3-2, 47 points) last year.

"It will be an exciting game, it always is," said Tri-City veteran forward Adam Hughesman. "In the past they have always had players away at the World Juniors, but this year it's just (Jared) Cowen. I'm expecting a tighter game than in years past. The fans are great -- they make the game. Hopefully we can deliver for them."

Portland (25-10-0-3, 53 points) leads the U.S. Division, but after three straight losses, is seeing its lead dwindle away while the Chiefs and Americans continue to pile up the points.

Spokane, which has won 8 of its last 10 games, is second in the division, while Tri-City, which also has won 8 of 10, is just three points back of the Chiefs.

"The great thing about our building is that it is electric," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller, whose team has five games in hand on Portland and two on Spokane. "I expect this will be up there with the home opener. We will play them seven more times; they are all big games. It should be an exciting second half (of the season)."

Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur, who was behind the Americans bench for six years, was 3-2 with one tie against Spokane on New Year's Eve.

"We are just trying to play the best hockey we can," Nachbaur said. "It's the halfway point and I'm not putting a lot of emphasis on this being a big game."

Tri-City has played solid hockey all season, with the exception of a five-game skid that ran from Oct. 30 to Nov. 19. The Americans score an average of 3.82 points per game, and goalies Drew Owsley and Chris Driedger have limited opponents to an average of 3 goals per game.

Owsley (18-10-0-1) has had the lion's share of time in goal and has played a big part as the Americans have outscored opponents 35-15 in eight December games.

"Our defense has been good and I've been playing with more confidence and seeing the puck better," Owsley said. "I like the challenge of facing high-scoring teams and New Year's Eve is a fun game. There is extra passion and electricity in the building, and with the standings being so close, it will make it that much better."

The Americans will have to rely on their strengths tonight to come out on top. They have the top power play in the WHL at 25 percent, they have home ice mojo (11-2-0-1) and balanced scoring.

Hughesman leads the Americans with 21 goals and 46 points, ranking him ninth in league scoring. Jordan Messier also has 21 goals, and eight players have 22 or more points.

"To beat the top teams you have to be on top of your game," Hiller said. "They are well balanced through four lines, they skate well and (Tyler) Johnson and (Levko) Koper are key players. You have to make sure you are ready to go."

Spokane, which opened the season 4-5-0-1, has been one of the hottest teams in the league as of late. The Chiefs lead the league in scoring with 4.13 points per game, and their defense is one of the stingiest, allowing just 2.75 points per game.

Their penalty kill, ranked first at 85.9 percent is a big part of allowing just 99 goals in 36 games, as is goalie James Reid (21-7-2-1), whose goals against average is 2.50.

"After the first month, a lot of stuff clicked with us," Nachbaur said. "I think our guys have been really receptive with what we have asked them to do. We knew a the start of year it was a different team from last year, and credit to them, they have come together."

The Chiefs will be without Cowen, a veteran defenseman playing in his second WJC for Team Canada. Also gone is rookie defenseman Reed Gow, playing for Team Pacific at the U-17 Tournament.

"We've had two defensemen out the lineup and are still finding ways to win," Nachbaur said. "Other guys have really stepped up for us."

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