KENNEWICK -- The Tri-City Americans have held the top spot in the Western Hockey League for weeks, climbing to the top with the help of a 13-game winning streak and a stellar record on home ice.
But the Kamloops Blazers are knocking on the door and looking to evict the Americans from their perch.
Tri-City coach Jim Hiller, who has downplayed the importance of certain games this season, admitted that tonight's home match-up against the Spokane Chiefs and Saturday's showdown with Kamloops are big.
"Anytime we play Spokane, it's hard to say it's just another game," Hiller said. "There is a lot of emotion in those games.
"(Today) is job one. Saturday seems a long way away when you are staring at Spokane on Friday. Saturday means nothing if we don't win (today)."
The Americans (34-10-0-0), who lead the Western Hockey League with 68 points, have won 13 in a row on home ice, dating to a win over Spokane on Oct. 29.
"We are a confident team in our own building, in front of our fans," said Hiller, whose team is 19-2-0-0 at Toyota Center. "There's a strong sense that someone will get it done."
Spokane (22-14-3-3, 50 points) is fifth in the Western Conference, with a seven-point lead over sixth-place Kelowna. The Chiefs trail fourth-place Vancouver by four points.
Tonight is the seventh meeting this season between the Americans and Chiefs. The Americans lead the season series 4-2, having won three at home and once on the road. Tri-City dropped a 5-3 game at Spokane last Saturday.
"The losses to Spokane and Portland (last week) -- physically, we were fine. Mentally, we were sluggish," Hiller said. "Against good teams, you have to be sharp or they will beat you. We broke down too many times."
The Chiefs are coming off a home loss Monday to Seattle. Spokane, 6-3-1-0 in its last 10 games, is 7-9-3-2 on the road.
Kamloops (32-10-1-2, 67 points) and Tri-City split their first two games, with each winning at home, but the Blazers are dangerous wherever they play.
Kamloops has the league's best road winning percentage at .738 (14-4-1-2). Good for the Blazers, who begin a five-game trip tonight in Seattle.
"From the outside looking in, they all look like big games," Hiller said. "We've put ourselves in a position to play big games in January and February, and that's a positive."
The Americans have reached the WHL summit with balanced scoring, solid defense and the top goaltending tandem in the league, Ty Rimmer and Eric Comrie.
Tri-City has four players with 50 or more points, led by Adam Hughesman with 28 goals and 71 points, Brendan Shinnimin (26 goals, 69 points) and Patrick Holland, who has points in 12 consecutive games.
The Americans' defense has a combined plus-106 rating, and the team owns the best goal differential (75) in the league, having scored 180 goals and allowed 105.
"The guys are willing to sacrifice anything," said Rimmer, who leads the league with five shutouts, a 2.10 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. "I have seen (Mason) Wilgosh numerous times dive behind me to knock a puck out, or a stick. That's what it takes to be successful."
* Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org