Tri-City Americans

Ams, Hitmen duel for title

There are 22 teams in the Western Hockey League.

Only two are left standing, and the Tri-City Americans and Calgary Hitmen square off tonight at the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary for Game 1 of the WHL finals.

"It just makes you all the more hungry to be the last team standing," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. "As you get closer to the end you think, 'Now I really want to get it.' We are not satisfied yet."

The Americans, who knocked off Vancouver for their first-ever Western Conference title last weekend, take on a Calgary team that won the Scotty Munro trophy for the best regular-season record and won its second straight Eastern Conference title.

The winner of this series heads to the Memorial Cup in Brandon, Manitoba, to decide the champion of North American junior hockey.

The teams met only once during the regular season, with the Hitmen winning 3-0 in Calgary on Jan. 31.

"They are really balanced, much like we are," Hiller said. "They are four lines deep with six defensemen, and they are going to come out at you hard -- they will have lots of energy. They have a couple of guys -- (Joel) Broda and (Brandon) Kozun -- who are really dangerous offensively and a goaltender (Martin Jones) who played in the World Juniors.

"We will be aware of those things, but will focus a heck of a lot more on ourselves than anyone else. I think we are on top of our game, and that's what we have to be concerned about."

Calgary coach Mike Williamson, in his first year with the club, had a good foundation when he walked in the door, and a few trades along the way helped shore up deficiencies.

"From the start, we had a pretty good group for guys," Williamson said. "There was a stretch in January where we had seven or eight games where we struggled a bit. But once the guys we traded for settled in, we've played pretty well."

The Hitmen made deals for winger Tyler Shattock, center Jimmy Bubnick and defenseman Zak Stebner. The trio has combined for 30 points in the playoffs, and Stebner had added stability to the blue line.

"They have done exactly what we have hoped," Williamson said. "They have added depth and experience, they have size and skill, and all have competed well."

Though both coaches are focused on preparing their teams, they know each other down to the lines, defensive pairings and goaltender tendencies.

"They are an incredible hockey team," Williamson said of the Americans. "They led the league most of the year. They are a very competitive group, they have a great skill level and have come out on top of the West.

"I think both teams won't get away from what has made them successful. But in a long series, adjustments will be made. Things are different from team to team, but I know how good a team they are, how hungry they are. In that sense, we know this should be a great matchup."

The Americans don't have the same stable of NHL-drafted players the Hitmen do, but are able to create scoring opportunities with their depth and speed, using their quickness to get behind defenses and attack the net.

"You have to be confident, not cocky -- there is a fine line," Hiller said. "Cocky bites you in the butt sometimes, but you have to play with confidence and believe in yourself. There is a great belief in each other and I think that's where we've grown in the playoffs. When you look around the room, somebody's going to get it done -- big hit, blocked shot, big goal. You just look around the room and you can't predict who it will be because everyone is doing it."

On top of the scoring, everyone is finishing checks, dropping gloves and dishing out the punishment.

"Courage goes a long way in hockey and often times (Johnny) Lazo is our most physical player in a tenacious way," Hiller said. "The size that (GM Bob Tory) acquired with Brownie (Mike Brown) and TK (Todd Kennedy) has really helped us. They had some big hits in the Vancouver series -- we aren't always taking it, we can dish it out on the other side.

"We are pretty galvanized. We've had adversity, we've had to stand up for ourselves and we feel right now there is no fear in that room whether we play the biggest team in the league or the most skilled team in the league. We are confident."

Both teams have relied heavily on their goaltenders all season, and both -- Tri-City's Drew Owsley and Calgary's Jones -- were named MVPs of their respective conference finals.

Jones comes into the series with a signed contract with the L.A. Kings and a silver medal from Canada's World Junior team. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound native of North Vancouver is 12-6 in the playoffs with a 2.61 goals against average and a .905 save percentage.

"If your team is still playing this time of year, you have to have good goaltending," Williamson said. "We are confident in Jones. He's played well in big games and he's going to have to play well against Tri-City's offense. We've heard Owsley has been a big reason for their success. We will have to match his intensity."

The 5-8, 155-pound Owsley is in his first year as a starter. The native of Lethbridge, Alberta, is 12-5 in the playoffs with a sterling 2.14 goals against average and a .931 save percentage.

"He's been outstanding all year," Hiller said. "We just believe in one another and when you do it's a powerful force and that can carry the day a lot of time. You need Drew to make a save, there's a save. You need someone to block a shot, it's there. We need a big goal, there's someone there. We don't want to be close, we want to take it all the way and I really believe with this mix of players we can do that."