Things are getting pretty crowded in the middle of the Western Conference standings.
The Tri-City Americans (31-19-1-2, 65 points) are sitting fourth, while Spokane (31-20-2-1) and Victoria (30-19-1-3) are one point behind. With all three teams playing each other this weekend, the smoke could clear, or the standings could continue to be as murky as they are now.
"It's a tough weekend," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller, whose team will host Victoria tonight and play at Spokane on Saturday. "All three teams are battling for position. This is the last time we play Victoria and we are looking to even our record with them."
Spokane, which has lost seven of its last 10 games, saw the sun peak over the horizon Wednesday with a 5-0 home win over Kelowna. The Chiefs are at the Kootenay Ice tonight and will host Victoria on Sunday.
"They have had a tough schedule," Hiller said of the Chiefs. "They have played Portland quite a bit lately, and Kamloops and Kelowna. Sometimes (your record) is based on the schedule. They are a good team, I don't doubt that. They will have it going in the right direction soon."
Victoria has won three in a row, including a pair of home games against Seattle on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Royals have won seven of their last 10, but they have struggled on the road this season, going 11-14-0-1.
The Americans are 4-4 against the Chiefs this season. Saturday will be the ninth of 12 meetings between the teams. Tri-City has won the last three games, including a 4-3 overtime victory Jan. 19 at Spokane Arena.
While Spokane and Victoria had games earlier in the Week, the Americans have been idle since their 4-3 overtime win Feb. 2 at Seattle.
"Usually you look for that one week to go over things and push the guys a little bit for that last sprint to the end, but we've actually had to take this week to rest and recover than work hard," Hiller said. "We are touching on a few things, but we've been resting. We've only had nine or 10 forwards."
Tri-City brought in affiliate players Justin Marreck and Parker Wotherspoon last week to help fill the void left by injuries and Tyson Dallman's three-game suspension, but they have returned to their respective teams.
The injury bug has haunted the Americans all season. Defenseman Brodie Clowes played just two games before a shoulder injury ended his season. Forward Phil Tot suffered a concussion Oct. 26 against Seattle and has not returned to the ice. Beau McCue has been nursing an ankle injury since Jan. 13, and Ryan Chynoweth went out with a shoulder injury Jan. 22.
On top of all of that, starting goaltender Eric Comrie was shelved for the season Jan. 18 with a hip injury.
"My second year, (Drew) Owsley, (Adam) Hughesman and (Mason) Wilgosh went out with knee injuries, but outside of that, this has been the worst it has been. From training camp until now. It would be great if it ended real soon and we were healthy the rest of the way.
"(Goalie) Luke (Lee-Knight) has been great," Hiller continued. "He played well before Eric went out. The team believes in him and they are having fun. (The team) has embraced this challenge, that's what really important about this team. They have accepted it -- the injuries and the big blow with Eric. I think some people thought that was it for Tri, but these guys didn't want that to happen. They have something to prove."
Dallman will serve the final game of his suspension tonight, leaving the team with 10 healthy forwards. The team will bring in Braden Purtill, 15, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to help out, but whatever energy the Americans can conserve is key to the weekend.
"At this point, ask them, we have practiced enough," Hiller said of his players. "We know how we are supposed to play, it's a matter of staying sharp, and in my mind, being rested. A guy like Fes (Justin Feser), he's better off laying in bed for a week than coming to the rink. You know he is going to play like crazy and I run him hard. He has that ability to make big plays, but at the same time, doesn't run out of gas. Even when he's tired, he's still effective."
Feser lead the Americans with 29 goals and 72 points, while his linemates Malte Strmwall (16 goals, 42 points) and Jesse Mychan (10 goals, 22 points) offer the perfect balance of skill and power.
"They complement themselves," Hiller said of his top line. "If you think about making a cake, all three add something to the mix and that's why they are having success. They have those elements that can hurt you."
Former Tri-City American Colton Yellow Horn was called up to the American Hockey League for the first time in his professional career. Yellow Horn, who plays for the Ontario Reign, will report to the Manchester Monarchs, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. Yellow Horn, 25, from Brocket, Alberta, is the ECHL's leading scorer with 58 points. In 48 games, he has a league-leading 36 goals and 22 assists. He leads the league with 10 game-winning goals and is second with 11 power-play goals.