Tri-City Americans

Ams play key stretch on road

KENNEWICK — The Tri-City Americans have been earning their points the hard way as of late -- on the road. That's where they will be today through Sunday, wrapping up a two-week, seven-game road trip.

Tri-City is 3-1 on its current journey, which stops tonight in Chilliwack, Saturday in Portland and Sunday in Seattle.

As they pulled away from Toyota Center on Thursday, the U.S. Division-leading Americans (45-18-1-2, 93 points) held a four-point lead over Everett, while Spokane is eight points back and Portland 10.

The Americans continue to battle Eastern Conference powers Calgary (95 points), Brandon (94) and Saskatoon (93) for the Scotty Munro trophy for the best record in the WHL.

There are six games left in the regular season with a maximum of 12 points to be earned.

"I think everyone can see the standings," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. "We have a sense of urgency. "We are refocused, re-energized and are playing how we have most of the year. Our depth is showing and the scoring balance is emerging again and that's what made us successful early."

Hiller, in his first year as head coach of the Americans, has benefited from a strong core of returning players, which has taken pressure off of him.

"I don't feel it is all on my shoulders," he said. "We have a great staff with (associate coach) Terry (Virtue) and the trainers. The great thing about our leadership core is we are a battle- tested group and you can't put a price on that. They have been through the pressure. We have pushed this far together and we keep going as a group -- that has been our strength."

Veteran defenseman Brett Plouffe is part of the leadership group, with 237 games of experience to lend as the Americans are on a quest to win their third straight U.S. Division title.

"The experience helps," Plouffe said. "At this point, every team is playing harder and has turned their game up a notch, and we have to do the same. This is what you play for -- the regular season is all about seeding, the playoffs are what it's all about."

The Americans are 17-2 against the B.C. Division this season, sweeping Kamloops, Kelowna, Prince George and Vancouver. Their two blemishes are losses to Chilliwack (29-31-1-5, 64 points), one at home and one on the road.

"They play us hard," Plouffe said of the Bruins. "We just need all of our guys to play every night. We will be fresh for Friday, which is different from some other nights we've had."

Tri-City has had better luck against Portland. The Americans are 8-1 against the Winterhawks (40-24-2-1, 83), who dropped a 5-1 game to Tri-City on Tuesday.

"I think we tend to frustrate them," Plouffe said.

The Americans are 6-2 against the Thunderbirds (17-36-7-5, 46 points), who will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.