By Annie Fowler, Herald staff writer
Playing good teams can only make you better.
With that said, you have to feel a bit sorry for the rest of the teams in the Western Conference when Tri-City and Vancouver play one another. They are the top two teams in the conference and are already starting to pull away from the teams in their respective divisions.
"The two teams over the last couple of years have done well," said Vancouver coach Don Hay. "The organizations have developed a real good tradition of winning. Tri-City is a very good hockey club. They are playing well at home, playing well on the road and playing with confidence. It should be a real good matchup."
The Americans (14-3-0-0, 28 points), the only team in the WHL that has not lost on home ice, will put their six-game home win streak on the line tonight when they host the B.C. Division-leading Giants (12-4-1-2, 27 points). Tri-City is 12-6 all-time against Vancouver at home, and has won four of the last five meetings at Toyota Center.
"They are clearly one of the most successful franchises in the league," said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. "You want to measure up to them. If you can compete with them, it gives you confidence."
The Americans won the first meeting between the teams 5-3 on Oct. 17 at Pacific Coliseum, but they had to rally from two goals down before taking control of the game in the third period.
"We have to play better than that," Hiller said. "I think we have to go harder to the net and draw penalties. We are fast to the net, but sometimes we get too cutesie."
Vancouver hasn't lost a regulation game on the road this season (3-0-1-2), but Hay said the Giants will have to play a full 60 minutes tonight to have success.
"They had a good third period against us in Vancouver to get the win," Hay said. "They deserved the win. They outplayed us. We are still learning as a group. We are just trying to get better."
The Americans are coming off a five-game road trip in which they finished 4-1. The lone loss was to Chilliwack last Wednesday, but that was followed by two wins over Prince George and an 8-3 victory over Kamloops on Tuesday.
"There are no easy games. We were bound to lose sometime," Hiller said. "Sometimes you win and not play as well as you should. Chilliwack outworked us. We've changed that."
The Giants, who have played 13 of their 19 games at Pacific Coliseum, are coming off a 4-0 victory over Portland on Wednesday.
Vancouver has had to load up its home schedule the first part of the season because the Winter Olympics will displace the Giants from their home in January. The Giants will be on the road from Jan. 6-29 -- a span of 10 games.
Tri-City's top line of Brendan Shinnimin (13 goals, 17 assists), Adam Hughesman (10, 13) and Johnny Lazo (7, 11) have accounted for 30 of the team's 70 goals. Jordan Messier has eight goals -- including four in the last four games -- and Justin Feser six.
Goaltender Drew Owsley, who leads the league with 13 wins, has been solid for Tri-City, which has allowed just 40 goals this season.
Vancouver's Craig Cunningham is one of the top scorers in the WHL with 12 goals and 16 assists. But just like the Americans, the Giants have gotten balanced scoring throughout their lineup.
"We are not a real talented team offensively," Hay said. "When you lose two players (Evander Kane, Atlanta Thrashers, and James Wright, Tampa Bay Lightning) to the NHL this year that could be on your hockey club, you have to get scoring from all of your players. We are trying to get players to step up and contribute and we have."
In net, Jamie Tucker has gotten a majority of the ice time for the Giants. He is 9-4-0-2 with a 2.45 goals against average and a .906 save percentage.
Where the offenses and defenses are relatively even, it could be special teams that decide the outcome of tonight's game when the Americans send their third-ranked power play (28.4 percent) out against the Giants' top-ranked penalty kill (90.5 percent).
"Special teams have been our strength, but we didn't score a power-play goal in Vancouver," Hiller said. "We have to be better than that (0-for-7 performance in Vancouver)."