KENNEWICK -- Good. Better. Best.
In sports, being the best is the ultimate goal, but to get there you have to start at good, which was where the Tri-City Americans were before swinging a couple of deals to bring in defenseman Matt MacKenzie and forward Carter Ashton.
"We are a strong team, but with Matt and Carter, we are a stronger team," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller, who had a full lineup Thursday at practice. "It was nice to get everyone on the ice together and see what we look like.
"Guys like Carter and Matt, they bring a physical sense -- they are big strong guys who are excellent players. They are strong physically and mentally and coming in they are adding to what we already have."
The Americans (25-12-1-1, 52 points) will put MacKenzie and Ashton to work this weekend when they play host to Kamloops tonight and Vancouver on Saturday. The Americans, who have won eight of their last 10, are 14-2-0-1 on home ice this season.
The Blazers (20-22-1-1, 42 points), led by Brandon Ranford (30 goals, 36 assists), have lost two straight, are 5-5-0-0 in their last 10 games and are the most penalized team in the WHL with 1,006 penalty minutes.
Tri-City has the top power play in the league at 26 percent, while Kamloops ranks last in penalty kill at 74.8 percent.
Kamloops has beaten Tri-City just twice in the last five years, but Hiller isn't about to put a mark in the win column.
"With Kamloops, they can beat anyone and they have done that," Hiller said. "They have great skill and speed up front. Vancouver (20-18-1-4, 45 points) will be better. They are a strong team and their depth is better."
The Giants were at Toyota Center on Dec. 17, and were handed their worst loss of the season, 9-1. The game featured 272 penalty minutes and seven fights.
"When you are a coach you are always worried about the next game," Hiller said. "The Western Conference is tough. The standings change pretty regularly. When you win, you are happy."
And it's been smiles all around since the start of December, as the Americans have gone 10-3-0-0 and outscored opponents 64-28.
"It took everyone a different amount of time to find their groove," Hiller said. "Now, they have all settled in and they contributing in their own way."
Leading the way is goalie Drew Owsley, who was 6-2 in December and 4-1 in January for a 1.73 goals against average and a .935 save percentage.
Adam Hughesman has 10 goals and 12 assists in his last 13 games, while Brendan Shinnimin has nine goals and 18 assists.
Tonight, Hiller will pair MacKenzie with Brock Sutherland on the blue line, as he did in Tuesday's game against Seattle. He will leave Tyler Schmidt paired with Zach Yuen.
"We feel Sudsy has played well and he and Matt have played well together," Hiller said. "Schmitty and Zach have chemistry and if we leave them together we have a solid top four."
MacKenzie also adds depth to a potent power play (54 goals) that generally runs four forwards with one defenseman -- which has been Schmidt. Ashton also will play a key role on special teams.
"It hits a lot of areas of our team and adds a lot of intangibles," Hiller said of mixing in Ashton and MacKenzie. "It makes us that much better."
* Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; email@example.com