The 2011-12 Western Hockey League season is barely one-quarter of the way through, but teams already are jockeying for the top spots in their respective divisions.
Tonight, the Portland Winterhawks are at Toyota Center to take on the Tri-City Americans in a battle of the top two teams in the U.S. Division.
An Americans' win will keep them at the top, where they have been all season. A Portland victory would give the defending division champions their first taste of the top this season.
"We started out with three of our first seven games against them," Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. "Both teams have been playing better since then. It's good to get them back in our building again."
The Americans (16-6-0-0) and Winterhawks lead the U.S. Division and Western Conference with 32 points, though Tri-City has three games in hand. The Winterhawks (15-8-1-1) are coming off a 5-2 win over Regina on Tuesday.
"The last couple of years, they have given us the most trouble," said Winter-hawks coach Mike Johnston, whose team is 0-3 against Tri-City this season. "They are a good hockey team, they play well and they play well at home. Those are big factors."
The teams haven't played each other since Adam Hughesman had a hat trick and Ty Rimmer shut out the Winterhawks on Oct. 9, which doesn't seem that long ago -- but the Americans have played 15 games against 12 different teams in that time span.
"They are all big games," Hiller said. "It makes both teams better. You have to be focused because the quality of the competition is that good. The Kamloops game (a 3-2 win on Saturday) was a high-intensity game and it was physical. Portland is strong and they have some big guys. They are very similar."
The Winterhawks played several games at the start of the season without Sven Bartschi, who was at the Calgary Flames camp. In 15 games, the Swiss winger has eight goals and a team-high 27 assists. He is second in scoring to Ty Rattie (21 goals, 19 assists).
"Five of our eight losses were with Sven gone," Johnston said. "He is a key part of our team, for sure."
The Americans were without Brendan Shinnimin for two games at the start of the season (Phoenix Coyotes camp), and Jordan Messier began the season on the injured list, but both have returned and have made big contributions.
"Both teams had a fair amount of turnover since last season, but we've both had time to get our teams back together," Hiller said.
Adam Hughesman leads the Ams with 15 goals and 36 points, with Shinnimin and Justin Feser each with 23 points.
Ty Rimmer (10-3-0-0), who leads the WHL with a 1.77 goals against average and a .941 save percentage, is 2-0 against the Winterhawks this season, while rookie Eric Comrie (6-3-0-0) has the other win.
The goaltending tandem has allowed just 54 goals this season (2.45 per game), while the team has scored 77.
Mac Carruth (14-7-1-0, 2.87 GAA) was on the losing end of all the games against Tri-City.
The Winterhawks are one of the highest scoring teams in the WHL with 100 goals, but they also have given up 88 goals -- third most in the 10 team Western Conference.