One of the hottest teams in the Western Hockey League will face one of the best goaltenders in the league tonight when the Tri-City Americans hit the road to take on Calvin Pickard and the Seattle Thunderbirds.
The Americans (15-5-0-0) have had their way with the Thunderbirds lately, winning their last 10 meetings, including the last four in Kent.
"We haven't seen Seattle all year, not even in the preseason," Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. "It will be new for everyone. Twenty games into the season and a new opponent.
"It's a new season for everyone," Hiller continued. "You can throw out last year. Calvin is always a handful in goal. You have to make sure you get a lot of shots if you want to get something by him."
The Americans will finish the weekend with a home game against Kamloops on Saturday. The Blazers (13-6-0-0, 26 points) have lost their last four to Tri-City and haven't won at Toyota Center since Dec. 29, 2008, a span of four games.
"Kamloops up near the top in the B.C. (Division) and they are off to an excellent start," Hiller said. "They are coming here with something to prove, I don't doubt that."
Tri-City has won five in a row and leads the Western Conference with 30 points. The Americans went 3-0-0-0 against the Central Division last week on the road, beating Kootenay, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge.
Behind the play of veteran goaltender Ty Rimmer (9-3-0-0) and rookie Eric Comrie (6-2-0-0), the Americans have give up just 49 goals this season -- third fewest in the league.
"You look at Eric and Ty's numbers, they are at the top of the league," Hiller said. "They benefit from pushing each other. Eric is hungry for his starts, and you have to give Ty credit, understanding his role as a mentor. I think both of them being new this year to the team has made easier for both of them."
Seattle went through a coaching change over the summer as long-time coach Rob Sumner was fired and former NHL winger Steve Konowalchuk was hired.
"It takes some time to figure things out," Konowalchuk said. "What guys you can count on and who are willing to play the way you want them too. And, you have to give the players time to figure out what I want. It's a bit of a process. We have the building blocks in place."
Konowalchuk played two years in the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks, and went on to have a lengthy career with the Washington Capitals -- with Americans owner Olie Kolzig -- and finished his NHL career with two seasons with the Colorado Avalanche.
"Olie is a good friend of mine," Konowalchuk said. "We played a lot of years together and had a lot of good memories together. I'd love to beat his team."
The Thunderbirds (7-11-0-0, 14 points) are coming off their Central Division road swing, where they went 2-4-0-0 with wins over Lethbridge and Calgary.
"We ended better," Konowalchuk said. "We are a very emotional team. From game to game, when things are going well, we are tough to play against. When thing don't go our way, they get down on themselves. We have to start keeping our emotions in check."
Tonight is the first of nine meeting between Tri-City and Seattle, but Konowalchuk is familiar with the weapons the Americans possess.
"They have good skills and are a good puck-moving team," said Konowalchuk, whose team is 2-5-0-0 at ShoWare Center. "It you are not committed to playing defense first and not turning over the puck, they will hurt you."
The Thunderbirds have relied on Pickard the last three-plus years to make the big saves. This season, Pickard is 7-9-0-0 with a 4.30 goals against average and an .893 save percentage -- the worst numbers of his career.
"The numbers for goalies are misleading," Konowalchuk said. "It is a team stat. I think the biggest thing has been consistency. Some games we limit the number of chances and we win. When we've been bad, thing have been really bad. We are letting him see a lot of pucks from the outside and letting him see the puck, that's when we play well. We need to be better at that."
Pickard is playing for Team WHL at the Subway Super Series this week, and posted a 5-2 over the Russians on Wednesday in Regina, Saskatchewan. Pickard also go the start Thursday in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, after Medicine Hat's Tyler Bunz took a puck off his head while on the bench during Wednesday's game.
"It's an exciting time for him," Konowalchuk said. "Sometimes it gets to be routine. For him to go there, with the excitement to try and make Team Canada (for the World Junior Championship), it's a chance to recharge his batteries."
-- Americans defenseman Michal Plutnar was ranked 16th among WHL skaters in the preliminary rankings of North American players eligible for the 2012 NHL entry draft.
Plutnar, from Chotebor, Czech Republic, has three goals, three assists and a plus-3 rating in 17 games.
-- Team Russia scored four consecutive third-period goals, battling back to beat Team WHL 7-5 on Thursday night in the Subway Super Series before 4,630 fans at Mosaic Place in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
Tri-City Americans defenseman Zach Yuen had an assist and a minor penalty. Tri-City forwards Justin Feser and Patrick Holland did not record any points.
Team WHL beat the Russians 5-2 on Wednesday.