It’s been a week since the Tri-City Americans revamped their lineup, and with a solid week of practice, they are ready for their first three-game weekend since the first half of their Central Division road trip in early November.
Tri-City will play at Seattle tonight, then host Spokane on Saturday and Vancouver on Sunday.
“Every weekend is a challenge,” said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. “We played two games last weekend and that was a challenge. We are fortunate the travel is Friday and we are home Saturday and Sunday. That makes the weekend a little easier. For me, it’s as much about the travel as it is about how many games you play.”
The Thunderbirds (26-14-2-3, 57 points), Chiefs (26-13-2-2, 56) and Giants (22-15-5-3, 52) are ahead of the eighth-place Americans (20-20-2-2, 44) in the Western Conference standings, and a couple of wins could go a long way in putting space between themselves and the Prince George Cougars, who are lurking four points back.
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“They are always challenging for different reasons,” Hiller said of his weekend opponents. “Each team has different strengths.”
The Americans added forward Jackson Playfair and defenseman Josh Thrower last weekend and split their games with Everett. Going into tonight’s game, both have had a week get things figured out.
“I was talking to Hamo (Justin Hamonic) about that,” Hiller said of the roster moves. “The changes that were made and that type of thing. We feel we can beat anybody. It’s not the changes or the age of the team, it just matters who is playing. We are as confident today as we were Game 1 of the season, as we were when we won 12 of 15. The win (last) Saturday is part of that. The game swings on confidence. Coming off a hard-fought win, we feel good.”
Saturday’s battle with Spokane will have Playfair matching up against his former team, with former Tri-City forward Marcus Messier on the opposite bench. The two were swapped for each other last Thursday.
“I think warmups will be the weirdest part, coming out on the other side,” Playfair said. “Once you step on the ice, it’s just another game. The anticipation leading up to it is big, as is playing against ex-teammates and friends, but when you step on the ice you aren’t friends. It’s nice that it’s here with the great fans here in Tri. It will be nice to have their support.”
Messier will play his 200th WHL game Saturday against his former team.
“It’s hard for me to put into words how hard it will be,” Messier said. “I’m excited and a little nervous. Just passing the locker room will be weird. I’m excited for the experience, it will be new. I respect the boys out there, but once the game starts, there are no friends out there.”
Playfair, who is known for his physical style of play, said he won’t hesitate to put one of his former teammate into the boards.
“That will happen for sure,” he said. “There will be hugs and handshakes after the game, but on the ice there are two points up for grabs. It’s a Saturday night game, and it’s always an unreal environment when it’s Spokane versus Tri. Everyone has their role to play, and I have mine. I’ve been under the (Americans’) skin once or twice. Now that I’m on their side, I’m not going to change how I play.”
On Sunday, Thrower will be on the opposite end of the ice from his older brother Dalton Thrower, captain of the Giants. Over the last year and a half, they have met up three times, with Dalton’s team winning every time.
“This is the last time I’ll ever get to play him,” Josh Thrower said. “I definitely wouldn’t mind coming out of this game with a win.”
With Dalton three years older than Josh, the brothers’ hockey paths haven’t crossed very often, making Sunday’s game more special.
“Growing up I never played against him, ever,” Josh said. “It’s pretty cool looking over on the other bench and seeing my big brother over there. I look up to the guy. He’s taught me everything I know up to this point. I’ve always looked up to him as a role model. To play against him is a cool feeling.”
w Annie Fowler: 582-1574; email@example.com; Twitter: tchicequeen