KENNEWICK — The last time Tri-City played Kelowna, the Rockets laid a 6-2 hurtin’ on the Americans at Prospera Place.
The next night, Tri-City coach Jim Hiller quipped, “We could have had Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr playing for us, and it wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Since that loss, the Americans (27-7-0-0, 54 points) have won eight in a row and boast the best record in the Western Hockey League.
They hope to keep their momentum rolling tonight when the Rockets (14-17-2-3, 33 points) visit Toyota Center for the final time this season.
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“I think everyone emptied the tank from the start of December to the (holiday) break,” Hiller said. “That takes a toll. We were ready for the break.”
The Americans had nine days off and returned Tuesday evening. They hit the ice Wednesday morning.
“Everyone is excited to be back,” Hiller said. “They were all on the ice before they had to be. To me, that was important. I probably spent one hour a day on mental gymnastics instead of 18. You can just forget about things. That is the benefit. We are back fresh, coaches included.”
Adam Hughesman, Tri-City’s leading scorer, said the time off was much needed.
“It felt like a good amount of time,” said Hughesman, who has 23 goals and 36 assists. “Everyone thinks (hockey) is just physical, and it’s nice to let the body rest, but it’s mental, too. Once you get past Christmas and Boxing Day, you get back into playing mode.”
And back with the rest of the team.
“There are a few stories to be told in the dressing room, and see what everyone was up to,” Hughesman said. “This team has the best chemistry since I’ve been here.”
All the players except Czech defenseman Michal Plutnar went home for the holidays.
“It was his decision,” Hiller said. “Bob (Tory) had gotten him a ticket and said he wanted to stay. He didn’t want to have jet lag. He wanted to be at his best.”
Plutnar still will get to spend time with his parents, who arrived Wednesday night in the Tri-Cities.
With rookie goalie Eric Comrie off to the U-17 World Hockey Challenge, the Americans brought in Brett Teskey to back up Ty Rimmer. Teskey (9-3-0-0), who played with the Kootenay Ice last season, has been playing with the Weyburn Red Wings of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
The Rockets, who dropped a 4-1 home game to Spokane on Tuesday, have won just three of their last 10 games since beating Tri-City.
“We’ve had a ton of injuries during our Eastern swing,” Kelowna assistant coach Dan Lambert said. “We had as many as seven guys out four or five games. We have a lot of young guys in the lineup. It’s not an excuse, but it has hurt us. We played hard and competed on the Eastern swing, and we thought good things were going to happen.
“We come back (from the break), and we lose at home to Spokane. It’s a concern, and we aren’t happy. You don’t win home games. It’s hard to compete in the league.”
Kelowna is playing without head coach Ryan Huska, an assistant coach for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship.
Rockets winger Brett Bulmer, who is second on the team in scoring with 28 points, has scored all of his points in his last 19 games and is on a 10-game point streak (10 goals, 4 assists).
Bulmer spent the first part of the season with Minnesota Wild, then was sent back down.
“He’s done a good job for us, and he’s played hard,” Lambert said. “When they sent him back, we were surprised.”
The Rockets must be at their best to take a game off Tri-City at Toyota Center, where Kelowna has won just once in its last nine trips to Kennewick. The Americans are 14-2-0-0 on home ice this season.
“It’s not necessarily us or them, but they come out hard, play hard and get their fans involved,” Lambert said. “It’s not an easy building to play in. Give Tri credit for what they do at home.”
Notes: Comrie backed Team Pacific to a 4-1 exhibition win over Sweden on Wednesday in Essex, Ontario. Comrie played the first half of the game, shutting out Sweden. ... Want a ticket for the New Year’s Eve game against Spokane? There are single seats available, and standing-room only tickets will be available later in the week. ... The Spokane Chiefs traded leading scorer Anthony Bardaro (18 goals, 37 points), backup goalie Luke Lee-Knight (2-0-1-1, 2.91 GAA, .868 save percentage) and a 2012 fifth-round bantam draft pick to Prince Albert for goalie Eric Williams (8-15-1-2, 3.86 GAA, .884 save percentage) and forward Todd Fiddler (4 goals, 10 points).