The Portland Winterhawks are climbing the Western Hockey League standings, and just three points separate them from the Tri-City Americans, who have led the U.S. Division pretty much since the start of the season.
The Americans (37-13-1-1, 76 points), second in the Western Conference behind Kamloops (80 points), will look for points when they host Portland (35-15-2-1, 73 points) tonight and play at Spokane on Saturday.
"We are ready for a big win against a top team, and Portland is just that," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller, whose team is 5-1 against the Winter-hawks this season.
Portland, 0-3 at Toyota Center this season, has seven wins in its last 10 games.
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"It's interesting in our conference," Winterhawks coach Mike Johnston said. "There is a group of teams ahead of everyone else, and they are starting to separate themselves from the pack. Those five teams are really good teams, and three are in our division. We've been fighting Spokane and Tri-City the last couple of years. It keeps the game interesting and the players focused."
The Americans are coming off a loss to Kamloops on Wednesday, but Hiller said he saw good things from his team.
"The first period was probably the best I can remember," Hiller said. "The positives far outweighed the negatives. It was a great effort by (Brendan) Shinnimin -- his best since Edmonton (on Jan. 25)."
Tri-City lost rookie Tyson Dallman to a lower body injury in the Kamloops game. He is the latest in a line of players put on IR, joining Mason Wilgosh, Malte Strmwall and Marcus Messier.
Messier, who has missed seven games because of an upper body injury, is expected to play tonight.
"We've been facing adversity, but it's good to face it now than in the playoffs," Tri-City forward Jesse Mychan said.
"Games against Portland and Spokane are always tough. We have to outwork them in the corners, get the greasy goals and get the four points."
Tonight is the fourth of 14 games the Americans will play this month -- their busiest of the year.
"It's a tough stretch, and it tests you," Hiller said. "That's why we have so much respect for the players in the WHL. They are asked to do a lot -- more than most young athletes. We have to keep things in perspective."
Portland's Ty Rattie, who leads the WHL in scoring with 87 points, is questionable for tonight because of an upper body injury, but the Winterhawks have plenty of weapons.
"We had some changes after the trade deadline, getting a player from college (Cam Reid) and one from Seattle (Marcel Noebels)," Johnston said. "Oliver Gabriel coming back from the AHL has been a good addition, as well. I feel we have more combinations we can throw at teams up front."
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