KENNEWICK -- The Tri-City Americans find themselves in the Western Conference finals for the fourth time in team history and the second time in three years after eliminating the Kelowna Rockets from the WHL playoffs on Friday night at Toyota Center.
Tri-City beat Kelowna 4-1 in the best-of-7 series for just its second playoff win over the Rockets. The first time was in 1996 -- the Rockets' first year in Kelowna after spending four seasons in Tacoma. The Americans knocked the Rockets out of the first round in six games.
"We are proud of what we have accomplished in a short amount of time," said Tri-City general manager Bob Tory, who spoke of creating a team identity and culture over the last six years. "When you feel good about yourself and who you are, it's easier to achieve. This is our second trip in three years. We aren't going there to be visitors -- we want to win.
"Right now we are playing as good of hockey as we have all year. We have gotten better in each series. The fans should enjoy it, they are a big part of it. Having success is having the hometown crowd behind you in thick and thin. They can rally the team, as was evident the other night."
The Americans will face the winner of the Vancouver-Portland series in the Western Conference finals, starting Friday at Toyota Center. The Giants hold a 3-2 lead over the Winterhawks. Game 6 is Tuesday in Portland.
Tri-City, which swept the four game series with the Giants during the regular season, has never faced Vancouver in the playoffs since it joined the WHL in 2001.
The Americans were 8-2 against Portland during the regular season. They last met in the playoffs in 2004, when Tri-City won the first-round series 4-1.
Americans coach Jim Hiller kept tabs on the Vancouver-Portland game Saturday while dining out with wife Kathy and other members of the coaching staff and trainers.
"We were checking on it from the dinner table," said Hiller, who said it doesn't matter who the Ams play next. "I think the rest will help us and give us a chance to work on some things. It will give us time to prepare for either."
To date, the Americans' track record in the Western Conference finals has not been good (0-3), and two of the teams to beat Tri-City have gone on to win the Memorial Cup.
In 1995, Kamloops ousted Tri-City in six games, with three going to overtime. The Blazers went on to win the Memorial Cup.
The Blazers again knocked off the Americans in 1999, this time in four games.
In 2008, the Americans played an epic series with rival Spokane. The series went seven games -- five of which went overtime, with three of those games going into double overtime. The Chiefs won the series and went on to win the Memorial Cup.
"That's the good thing about history, it's in the past and you get a chance to write your own story," Hiller said. "We'd like a chance to do that. We are focused on that now."
The Americans have dedicated the remainder of their season to teammate Neal Prokop, who broke his left femur March 23 against the Chilliwack Bruins. Prokop's No. 25 jersey hangs in the tunnel where the team enters onto the ice from the dressing room, and athletic therapist Brian Cheeseman has been arranging the pregame warmup pucks in a 2 and a 5 on the ice.
After 13 days in the hospital, Prokop returned home to Winnipeg, Manitoba, last Tuesday.
"We haven't forgotten about him," Hiller said of Prokop, who had 22 goals and 23 assists during the regular season. "He isn't here, but he's still part of the spirit of the team."
* Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org