Sit down and buckle up, the final weekend of the Western Hockey League is going be a wild ride.
The Western Conference still has one playoff spot to be earned, and Tri-City and Spokane are duking it out for fourth and fifth place.
In the East, all eight playoff teams have been decided, but several positions still are up in the air.
Tonight, the Americans and Chiefs will begin a home-and-home series at Spokane Arena.
The Americans need to win at least two of their final three games to have a chance at fourth place, while the Chiefs need just one win over Tri-City to claim fourth place.
“For me and our team, it’s another Tri-City weekend,” said Spokane coach Don Nachbaur. “No more pressure than there is at Christmas time. All of these are tough games.”
The Americans (40-25-1-3, 84 points) trail the Chiefs (42-25-2-0) by two points going into tonight’s game.
“We have to go in and win (tonight), that much is clear,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said.
The Americans finish the regular season Sunday at Everett, while the Chiefs wrap things up with a road game at Portland on Sunday. Spokane is 2-6-0-0 against the Winterhawks this year.
“We have three more games and we need these points,” said Americans forward Jesse Mychan. “We have been know to beat (Spokane) before. It’s a tough building to play in.”
Spokane has won three in a row and eight of its last 10 games. The Americans, who lost veteran defenseman Mitch Topping last Friday, are 0-1-0-1 in the two games he has been out.
“The whole season we have had injuries,” Mychan said. “We have faced adversity all season. (The extra shifts) take it toll on the body, but Jim gives us the rest we need. He knows what we have been through. We’ve gotten used to it, but it’s tough.”
The teams split their first 10 games. The Americans have won two games at Spokane and three at home, including a 6-0 victory the last time the teams played Feb. 16.
Both teams have plenty of weapons to unleash upon each other.
Tri-City’s Justin Feser ranks fifth in league scoring with 102 points, including 43 goals. Connor Rankin has scored 30 goals, while Parker Bowles has 21, Brian Williams 20, Malte Strömwall 19 and Mychan 18.
Defenseman Brenden Kichton leads the Chiefs with 81 points, which includes 22 goals and 59 assists. Todd Fiddler has a team-high 42 goals, while Mitch Holmberg has 38 and Mike Aviani 30.
The Chiefs have gotten good production from Swiss forward Alessio Bertaggia since he came over in a trade from the Brandon Wheat Kings. After missing several games with a shoulder injury, Bertaggia has 12 goals and six assists in 14 games. He has seven goals in his last six games.
“I hold my breath every day that they all will be healthy,” Nachbaur said of his team. “If you look at what (Tri-City) has been through with their front end hurt, it’s been our back end. (Blake) Gal has been playing defense. A lot of fans put this weekend as a high priority, but we are looking to get healthy for the playoffs. We cross our fingers to get everyone back for the first round.”
The two games could come down to goaltending. Each team has had its share of issues in net.
Tri-City lost starter Eric Comrie to a season-ending hip injury in January. Since then, Luke Lee-Knight and Troy Trombley, who both were backups in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League before coming to the Americans, have been manning the goal — with a great deal of success.
Lee-Knight (11-8-0-0) has a 3.72 goals against average and a .887 save percentage.
Trombley, who has taken over as the starter, is 8-3-0-1 with a 2.67 GAA and a .920 save percentage. After winning his first six starts, he is 2-3-0-1 in his last six starts.
For Spokane, Eric Williams has gotten the lion’s share of the work load since Mac Engel was traded to Prince George early in the season. Williams (31-19-2-0) has a 3.20 GAA and a .895 save percentage. He has won seven of his last 14 starts.
Rookie Garret Hughson (10-5-0-0) has been solid with a 3.11 GAA and an .893 save percentage. He has won his last five starts.
“If you don’t have goaltending, you aren’t going to win,” Nachbaur said. “Our goaltending has been good the last couple of weeks. The young kid (Hughson) has been outstanding. I’m confident I have two good kids to put in there. There is a lot of pressure on those kids (today) and heading into the playoffs.”
No matter how the weekend turns out, the teams will play each other in the first round of the playoffs. Even if the Americans finish fourth, the series will start March 22-23 at Spokane because Spokane Arena is hosting a regional round of the women’s NCAA Division I basketball tournament and the hockey playoffs must be scheduled around the basketball.