KENNEWICK — Seems like we've been here before.
Tri-City vs. Kelowna in the Western Conference semifinals. Happened last year and in 2004, but the Americans have never been able to defuse the mighty Rockets.
Today might be that day.
Tri-City leads the best-of-7 series 3-1 heading into tonight's Game 5 at Toyota Center. A win and the Americans get a little time off before playing the winner of the Vancouver-Portland series for the Western Conference title.
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A loss would send the series back to Kelowna for Game 6 on Sunday.
The Americans also faced this situation two weeks ago in their first-round series with Chilliwack. They lost a potential series clincher at home in Game 5 before closing out the Bruins in six games.
"We have to be hungry from the start," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. "Kelowna will play desperate -- we have to have the same desperation."
In 2004, the Rockets had too much firepower for the Americans to contend with down the stretch with the likes of future NHLers Shea Weber, Josh Gorges, Kyle Cumiskey and Blake Comeau. That series ended in six games.
Last year, the Rockets beat and battered the Americans to the point where their top three forwards were injured, as were two of their top defensemen. Kelowna won the series in six games -- winning the last four in a row -- and advanced to the Memorial Cup, where it finished second.
This year, Tri-City has dished out as much punishment as it has taken, and is healthy going into tonight's game.
"It has been a hard series to far," Hiller said. "It has been physical, but it has been clean. You need healthy players and fresh players, and everyone has been able to contribute minutes and that has been important."
The Americans have scored 36 goals in the playoffs, while giving up 24. Brendan Shinnimin, Kruise Reddick and Brooks Macek all have 11 points, while Sergei Drozd and Justin Feser each have 10. Fourteen different players have scored goals, and rookies Patrick Holland and Zach Yuen have been impressive.
"To be playing at the level we are now, and being first-year players and contributing as much as they are, has been a huge benefit," Hiller said of Holland and Yuen. "They both had really strong second halves to the season and as the level of play has increased, they have continued that."
Americans goaltender Drew Owsley has had an outstanding series, allowing seven goals in four games, including a shutout in Game 3 at Prospera Place.
"We are excited to go home where our fans are behind us," Owsley said after Wednesday's 3-2 victory. "But (the Rockets) aren't going to roll over because we are home. We have to go out hard and earn it."
Hiller has put his faith in Owsley all season, and the first-year starter has not disappointed. Owsley is 7-3 in the playoffs, with a 2.17 goals against average and a WHL playoff-best .930 save percentage after facing a league-high 302 shots on goal. He has a 1.76 GAA and a .943 save percentage against the Rockets.
"That's what you want from your goalie -- save pucks," Hiller said. "He's been good all year. People who wondered early how well he'd do, there's no wondering now."
Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org