One win. That's all the Tri-City Americans need to wrap up their fourth U.S. Division title in five years and grab the top seed in the Western Hockey League's Western Conference.
They have two home games in which to get the job done, tonight against Everett and Saturday against Spokane.
"Nobody should be hungrier than us (tonight)," Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. "We had a great opportunity Tuesday (in a 5-4 overtime loss to Prince George), and we didn't take advantage of it. We will be ready (tonight)."
The Americans (49-17-2-2), who lead the Western Conference with 102 points, are two points ahead of division rival Portland (48-18-3-1). The Winterhawks could have pulled even with Tri-City on Wednesday, but a 4-3 loss to Victoria put a wrench in their plans.
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B.C. Division champion Kamloops (46-19-2-3, 97 points) is out of the running for first in the conference after losing 6-4 to Spokane on Wednesday. The Blazers will be the No. 2 seed come playoff time.
The Silvertips (21-39-2-8, 52 points), who were left for dead six weeks ago at 11-30-1-8, have risen from the bottom of the league -- where they were Jan. 27 -- to eighth in the conference standings with two games to play. Their run has included wins over Tri-City, Portland and Vancouver, as well as four victories against seventh-place Victoria, which is one point ahead of Everett.
"Our kids have worked hard over the last six weeks," Silvertips coach Mark Ferner said. "We have fought our way back. This game is just as important as the game at the top. Tri-City and Portland are fighting for a title, and we are fighting to get in. We have to play like every shift is important."
Everett has two games remaining -- both on the road, where it is 7-21-2-4.
"Our fate is in our hands," Ferner said. "We are going to throw those numbers out the window. We win these last two games and we are in. We have to play a simple blue-collar game."
Hiller knows the position the Silvertips are in, but he also knows what his team can do.
"(Everett) is playing well, but our focus is solely on ourselves," said Hiller, whose team is 5-2 against the Silvertips this year. "In this league, every game is tough. It's a little easier if you are playing at your potential."
Tri-City forward Brendan Shinnimin, the front-runner for the Bob Clarke trophy as the league's leading scorer with 131 points, said he knows the Americans will have a tough battle tonight.
"Everett is a team on a mission," Shinnimin said. "When you look back, they are a team people counted out. They want it as bad as we want first place. They will be ready, but we know what we need to do -- we have to leave it all on the line."
The Americans, who have not had a full lineup since Christmas, will get defenseman Sam Grist and forward Jesse Mychan back tonight.
"We are as healthy as we've been since Christmas," Hiller said. "They are two big men that can play the game. That's a welcome addition to any lineup. Jesse has been great the last couple of practices, better than he's ever been."
Grist, who banged his head on the ice after a fight with Everett's Nick Walters on Feb. 24, has missed 10 games.
"I'm excited for sure," Grist said after Thursday morning's practice. "I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a good feeling to get back out there. I hope I can help out. It will take me a couple of shifts to get back in the groove."
Grist has been one of the Americans' top defensemen this season. He has three goals and seven assists, but his most impressive stat is his plus-minus, which has gone from minus-11 last year to plus-26 this season.
"It has been a better year for me," Grist said. "I'm hoping to keep that up the next couple of games and the playoffs."
Mychan, acquired from Everett in January, has played just 16 games with the Americans. In that time, however, he has had six goals and four assists, and brought a physical presence to the lineup.
Mychan broke his left thumb Feb. 14 against Vancouver and has missed 15 games, including three against his former team, which he will face tonight for the first time since the trade.
"It sucks," said Mychan, who will play with a brace on his hand. "Nothing I can do about it. They did fine without me. Playoffs are what's important.
"It will be difficult playing (Everett), especially my first game back. I still have to work out the kinks. I'm left-handed, and it could be tough. I may have to do a lot of dumping and chasing."
*Annie Fowler: 582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org