Tri-City Americans

Ams prepare to battle bigger Hitmen

The Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary holds more than 16,000 fans.

The Calgary Hitmen have six NHL-drafted players, and their average player has 2 inches and 5 pounds on his Tri-City Americans counterpart.

But to the Americans, it's just another hockey rink, and the Hitmen are just another hockey team standing between them and a WHL championship.

The two teams will meet in Game 1 of the finals Friday at 6:30 p.m. in Calgary.

"It doesn't matter how big they are," said Tri-City forward Johnny Lazo, who at 5-foot-7, 166 pounds, proves that old adage that it's not the size of the man in the fight, but the size of the fight in the man.

"We aren't intimidated by size at all. We've faced it all year. We'll be all right."

The Chilliwack Bruins, Kelowna Rockets and Vancouver Giants can attest to that. All three teams tried to physically punish the Americans in the playoffs, but Tri-City came out on top of each series no worse for wear.

"I think that's the great thing about this team," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. "People thought that was the secret to success against us -- to bang us around and make us go away. No one is going away. We are getting up and pushing back."

All the way to the WHL finals.

The Americans clinched their first Western Conference title Sunday with a 5-2 victory over the Giants. The Hitmen dispatched the Brandon Wheat Kings in five games to reach the WHL finals for the second year in a row. They lost to Kelowna last season in six games.

"I watched Kelowna play Calgary in the finals last year and the atmosphere (at the Saddledome) was awesome," said Tri-City forward Jordan Messier. "I'm excited to be part of it this year. Hopefully we'll get the same thrill. We may not have the biggest rink or the most fans, but we have one of the loudest rinks in the league. It will be awesome to play at home."

Lazo, who has six goals and seven assists in the playoffs, creates his own opportunities, leveling checks against larger players, dislodging the puck and heading up ice.

"It's a lot of fun. That's one of my strengths is being tenacious on the puck, getting in there on the forecheck and finishing checks," Lazo said. "I'm not the biggest guy and I don't hit the hardest, but I hit effectively."

Then he uses his most potent weapon -- his speed.

"You can't hit what you can't catch," Lazo said. "If we are faster than they are, they can't do much about that."

Tri-City forward Jordan Messier, who goes 6-2 and 193 pounds, said he admires Lazo.

"Johnny has never taken a backward step," Messier said. "He's always first on the puck; he's always in there. He may not be the biggest guy, but I wouldn't want to play against him. He makes it tough on other guys."

As do the rest of the undersized, relatively unknown Tri-City players.

"I think we have been put in that underdog spot all year," Messier said. "We don't have the big name guys or anything, but I think people are starting to realize we mean business. It's an exciting time and we are going to relish the opportunity against Calgary."

And if things should start to get a little out of hand, the Americans have a couple of equalizers in Mike Brown (6-2, 200) and Todd Kennedy (6-3, 212).

"We have small guys, but we hit back just as much as any other team does," Brown said. "I love going out there and getting a hit or anything to create some energy and get the guys all fired up on the bench. You can't have everyone being the skilled guy going out there and scoring the goals, you need guys to play all the roles -- that's what a team is and that's what works for us."

Note: Tri-City goaltender Drew Owsley was named CHL goaltender of the week after going 3-1 against Vancouver with a 1.97 goals against average and a .939 save percentage. It is the second time in three weeks Owsley has won the award.