KENNEWICK -- After playing nearly all of October on the road, the Tri-City Americans were able to get in a full week of practice before playing host to the Red Deer Rebels tonight.
The Americans went back to the basics this week with puck-handling drills, working on the power play and fine-tuning their offense.
"We had a really good practice on Monday," Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. "We did some basic stuff and a lot of skating, but I think we needed that. We've been able to pinpoint some things as the week has gone along. By the end of the week, the guys should be excited to get on the ice for a game."
The Americans (11-4-1-1, 24 points) will be near full strength tonight against the Rebels (11-6-0-0, 22 points), who lost to Portland 4-3 in overtime Friday night.
Team captain Kruise Reddick is back after missing eight games because of a concussion. The only missing component is forward Brendan Shinnimin, who has two games left of his WHL-imposed 12-game suspension.
"It's great to welcome Kruise back," Hiller said. "That changes the lineup a bit and helps out the power play and the penalty kill. Not too far down the horizon, we get Shinny back, too."
While Tri-City has played without two of its top scorers, Jordan Messier (11 goals), Adam Hughesman (10) and Patrick Holland (9) have helped keep the Americans' heads above water in a competitive Western Conference.
"It took Jordan awhile last year to find his game," Hiller said. "I thought against Calgary last year in the (WHL) finals, that was the best hockey he'd played all year. He's brought that forward into this year. He has to be at and around the net. He has the size and good hands to score a lot of goals for us."
The Americans' defense also has shown improvement since the addition of 20-year-old Zak Stebner at the overage deadline in October.
"Stebs helps our depth," Hiller said. "We talked through training camp that we liked our defense, but it was young. He can play in all situations and play a lot of minutes, which really helps."
Stebner has been paired with Brock Sutherland on the blue line, while veteran Tyler Schmidt and second-year player Zach Yuen have worked together. Though Schmidt and Stebner could be a shutdown pairing, Hiller has no immediate plans to split Schmidt and Yuen.
"What we have seen is Schmitty and Zach develop a chemistry, and we don't have a strong desire to switch those two," Hiller said. "We are trying to see what kind of chemistry Brock and Zak can have."
After tonight, the Americans are back on the road next weekend to face Everett and Spokane.
"At least we have been home for a bit," said Hiller, whose team has just13 home games before the Christmas break. "Home or away, it's tough. The Western Conference -- wow -- I don't think we've seen it this competitive in a while."
* Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org