KENNEWICK -- This weekend is Take 2 of 3 of the Tri-City Americans' matchups against the Spokane Chiefs and Portland Winterhawks.
Last week, the Americans defeated Portland 5-2 on Friday, and Spokane 5-4 on Saturday.
This time around, the Americans play host to the Chiefs tonight and will travel to Portland on Saturday. Next week, Tri-City plays both teams on the road.
"It's not hard to get excited for those games," Tri-City defenseman Matt MacKenzie said. "You see how important these points are for first place. It's going to be a battle to the end.
"Portland and Spokane are skilled at every position. It will be a test for us this weekend. This (U.S. Division race) is the toughest I have seen in this league."
Tri-City (32-23-2-1, 67 points) trails division leader Portland (34-15-0-3) by four points and second-place Spokane (31-13-4-2) by one point. The Americans have two games in hand on the Chiefs and four on the Winterhawks as the regular season winds down to the final six weeks.
"It was a big emotional weekend," Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said of last week's games. "Now, you wipe the slate clean and start over. There are a lot of games left. We have a long way to go before we have to start counting the points."
But they are being counted nonetheless.
"It's a race for first, and these points are going to count at the end," Americans forward Brendan Shinnimin said. "We have to be at our best if we want these four points. Spokane is always up in your face. We have to work extra hard."
If Tri-City wants to make a statement against Spokane, it must rev up its special teams, which weren't so special against the Chiefs last week.
The Americans, who have the top power play in the WHL, were 0-for-4 on the man advantage. The penalty kill, which is in the middle of the pack, gave up three power-play goals to Steven Kuhn, allowing the Chiefs to get back in the game.
"I think against Spokane, we have to do a better job on special teams," Hiller said. "From there, we have to do our thing."
Tri-City has won three in a row, has points in nine of its last 10 games and is 3-1-1-0 against the Chiefs.
Adam Hughesman ranks third in the WHL in goals scored (34) and fifth in points (71). Shinnimin is seventh in scoring (67 points) and third in assists (45) -- all in just 36 games. Goalie Drew Owsley ranks fourth in save percentage (.914) and wins (28), and is fifth in goals against average at 2.71.
Spokane counters with Tyler Johnson, who leads the WHL in scoring (83 points) and goals (38), and goalie James Reid, who has 29 wins and the league's second-best GAA at 2.48. Reid, who suffered a hip injury Jan. 23 against Portland, has not played since and is questionable for tonight.
Last week, the Americans took the momentum from Friday's home win against Portland and carried it into Spokane. This week, they hope to do it again, but this time riding the wave to Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
"I played in this building as visitor, and it isn't easy," said MacKenzie, who played for Calgary during the WHL finals last year. "The crowd gets behind the team, and it drains the visitor. It gives us a lot of energy."
Shinnimin, who is on a league-best 20-game point streak, has benefited from the home crowd for three years, and acknowledged how important the fans are.
"Whenever you can play at home, it's huge," Shinnimin said. "Especially for Spokane. We are going to have to build off the fans and hopefully get the win and do it again in Portland."
NOTES: Tonight's game will be broadcast live at 7 on FSN. ... Brandon defenseman Brodie Melnychuk is out indefinitely after fracturing his left leg. He was injured Jan. 11, but the fracture wasn't discovered until it showed up in X-rays this week. Melnychuk played four games with a sore leg, thinking it was bruised.
* Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; email@example.com