Compliments were flying across the podium Thursday afternoon as the Tri-City Americans and Vancouver Giants coaches and players were introduced at the Western Conference finals press conference.
"The staff and ownership group have done a great job in turning this program around," said Giants coach Don Hay of the Americans, the team he coached from 1998-2000. "They've done a great job of getting fans back. This building is exciting to play in."
On the other side, Tri-City coach Jim Hiller laid it on just as thick.
"We know this will be a tough series," Hiller said. "They are a great organization and have a great team. It's a great honor to take part in the Western Conference finals. I'm looking forward to a great entertaining series with Vancouver."
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The Americans and Giants open their best-of-7 series tonight at Toyota Center, with Game 2 on Saturday. The series shifts to Vancouver on Tuesday and Thursday for Games 3 and 4.
"We really feel this is our year to take it all the way," Hiller concluded. "No disrespect to Vancouver."
The U.S. Division champion Americans swept the four-game series with the Giants, who won their fifth straight B.C. Division title, leaving Vancouver's leading scorer Craig Cunningham a little leery of Tri-City.
"We can't turn our backs against their quick forwards," said Cunningham, whose team is 2-6 at Toyota Center over the last four years. "They will kill you with their odd-man rushes. We know their power play is good -- very lethal -- and our penalty kill has been average. We are expecting a tight-checking series and hopefully we can take advantage of our scoring chances."
The Americans have faced two hard-checking teams in Chilliwack and Kelowna, and have come out on top.
"We have answered that bell," Hiller said. "Our players know what it takes to go through that. We are going to focus on our strengths. We want to be dangerous in the offensive zone and put pressure on their goalie (Mark Segal). Special teams will be key. They have a really good power play, but the best way to counter that is not to go to the penalty box."
Tri-City captain Jarrett Toll, who leads one of the stingiest blue lines in the league, is looking forward to the challenge of playing the Giants.
"It's exciting to play Vancouver," Toll said. "We always seem to miss them by a round. It will be an exciting series to watch and more exciting to play."
Toll is one of 17 returning players from last season who have helped make Hiller's transition a smooth one and Tri-City one of the deepest teams in the WHL. The Americans' top three lines accounted for 222 of the team's 272 goals during the regular season.
"They are one of the top in the league in points through 72 games and they are high-powered with a lot of depth," said Vancouver captain Lance Bouma of the Americans. "And they have a good goalie (Drew Owsley). We've looked at some takes of him and he is solid with a good glove hand. We have to get to him if we are going to be successful."
The Giants started the season with a few question marks. They lost leading scorer Casey Pierro-Zabotel (115 points) to graduation, second-leading scorer Evander Kane (96 points) to the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers at 18 years old, and their top two defensemen -- Jonathan Blum and Craig Schira -- and goaltender Tyson Sexsmith to the American Hockey League.
"We lost a lot of impact players," Hay said. "A lot of new faces have come in and done well for us. I think the B.C. Division was a little weaker than the U.S. Division this year."
But behind Hay, the Giants have flourished. Hay, who is second all-time in the WHL with 99 wins -- two shy of Portland's Ken Hodge -- has coached 11 years in the WHL and his teams have never missed the playoffs.