It's time to put up or shut up.
During the next five weeks, three of the top teams in the WHL will play 10 games against each other in hopes of separating themselves from the pack in a hotly contested race for the U.S. Division banner.
Over the next 14 games, Tri-City will play Spokane six times, Portland three times and the Chiefs and Winterhawks will meet once.
The action gets under way tonight when division leader Portland (33-14-0-3, 69 points) is at Tri-City (29-13-2-1, 61 points). The Americans will play at Spokane (30-12-4-2, 66 points) on Saturday.
"It's a great dry run for the playoffs," Americans coach Jim Hiller said. "They will be intense games. We have to be focused and ready to play. These games will provide a great test for us."
The stretch of games will be physically and mentally tough on the players, but Hiller said his team can handle the challenge.
"You build those mental muscles," Hiller said. "We are careful not to use 'must win' or "critical.' Nobody knows what the outcome will be, all we can control is our focus, details and work,"
The Americans are 3-1-1-0 against the Winterhawks this season and have won both meetings at Toyota Center, where Tri-City has posted an 18-3-0-1 record this season.
Tonight is Nuclear night, and the Americans will play in nuclear-inspired jerseys in front of a packed house. As of Thursday afternoon, there were standing room only tickets available. The game can be seen live at 7 p.m. on FSN.
"It will be a rockin' building," Hiller said.
Tri-City's Brendan Shinnimin has a 17-game point streak going into tonight's game -- 13 goals and 25 assists -- but the big boost for the Americans is the return of forward Jordan Messier and rookie defenseman Sam Grist, both who missed a handful of games with concussions.
"It's encouraging," said Hiller, who also noted that Neal Prokop's leg still is on the mend and he won't play this weekend. "No one likes to have injuries, but it's important to take the time and not rush things. It's getting to what we might look like in the end. They are big bodies and in the second half of the season, those big bodies are important."
The 6-2, 195-pound Messier suffered a concussion Jan. 11 against Seattle and has missed six games. Before his injury, he had 22 goals and 14 assists.
"It took long enough," Messier said of healing from his injury. "It's hard to sit -- you feel helpless. My first practice the other day, I felt a little out of whack and I had cement hands."
Messier also got a chance to skate with newcomer Carter Ashton, who arrived the day after he was injured.
"I got to see how good a player he is," Messier said. "We are excited with who we have in the lineup. This weekend will be a good test. We have a good team and we will put our best effort out there. Last year at this point we had a big point spread. This year, every point has a big impact."
Grist, who suffered a mild concussion at Portland on Jan. 18, missed three games.
"I hope it helps that I'm back," Grist said. "My job is to be the big guy and play physical."
The Winterhawks come into tonight's game having won their last six games. They have an eight-point lead over the Americans in the standings, but Tri-City has five games in hand.
Portland will be without forward Oliver Gabriel (11 goals, 21 assists) for the rest of the season with a dislocated shoulder. In his absence, the Hawks will look for continued production from leading scorers Ty Rattie (21 goals, 42 assists), Craig Cunningham (17 goals, 45 assists) and Sven Bartschi, who leads the WHL in rookie scoring with 26 goals and 32 assists.
Rattie has three goals and six assists in his last four games as the Winterhawks have outscored their opponents 23-10.
Spokane has one of the top scorers in the league in overage forward Tyler Johnson, whose 80 points include 36 goals and 44 assists.
The Chiefs could be without goaltender James Reid, who suffered an ankle injury last weekend against Portland. He already has missed one game.