KENNEWICK -- The Tri-City Americans have been one of the hottest teams in the league as of late, and they hope to keep the fire alive tonight when the Seattle Thunderbirds roll into town.
"I think we have been determined for a while," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller, whose team is 11-2-0-1 at home. "It was a disappointing finish to Friday's game (ice issues in the second period forced the game with Spokane to be rescheduled), and I think we used that extra energy Saturday (win over Everett). I think we are becoming more definable."
The Americans (22-11-1-1, 46 points) have won three in a row and 8 of 10 in closing in on U.S. Division-leading Portland (53 points).
The Spokane Chiefs, who have a three-point lead on Tri-City, also have been on a hot streak, earning points in nine of their last 10.
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Seattle (16-14-3-4, 39 points) has had a Jekyl and Hyde-type of season. They have had a few win streaks to keep pace with the top teams in the division, but lately have lost 6 of 10.
"We've had our ups and downs," said Thunderbirds coach Rob Sumner. "We've had games where we've played well and got points, and others where we haven't. We need to manage our ups and downs and manage each game as an individual task."
The Thunderbirds, led by goalie Calvin Pickard, haven't had much success at Toyota Center in recent memory. Seattle has lost 14 straight in Kennewick, and Pickard, one of the best goalies in the WHL, has never won a game at Toyota Center in nine starts.
"They are tough in their own rink," said Sumner, whose team is 0-5 against Tri-City this year. "We've come close a couple a couple of times. We will do our best."
Despite recent history, Hiller and his team will not take the T-birds lightly.
"Seattle has had some games where they have deserved to beat us," said Hiller, who noted two wins this season have come in a shootout. "They have played well here, but we have scored timely goals when we needed them."
While Tri-City has Carter Ashton at the World Junior Championships, the Americans haven't been missing the talented winger since he's been with Team Canada since the trade with Regina.
Seattle, though, is missing winger Marcel Noebels, who is playing for Germany at the WJC, and rookie Justin Hickman, who is at the U-17 tournament. They also have a couple of players on the injured list.
"That's a double-edged sword," Hiller said of the WJC. "When you have guys away, they are gaining valuable experience playing for their countries. Everyone benefits from playing in the tournament, but in the meantime, we have been able to move relatively smoothly with the lineups we have had. It makes it competitive for playing time and as a coach you like it when there is accountability for ice time."
The Thunderbirds, however, have been missing Noebels, who has 10 goals and 12 assists. They did benefit from Team Canada returning Pickard.
"Noebels is one of our best players, and you feel him being out," Sumner said. "All the best players in the world are at the U-20 and we hold Calvin in that category. It's disappointing for Calvin, we would have liked for him to be there, but as far as him being back, it has been good for us."
* Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; email@example.com