VANCOUVER, B.C. - What a difference a year makes for Jim Hiller.
The Tri-City coach guided the Americans to the WHL championship series Sunday for the first time in the franchise's 22-season history as they beat the Vancouver Giants 5-2. Tri-City captured the best-of-seven Western Conference championship series 4-2. The historic achievement came after Hiller was fired by the Chilliwack Bruins last spring when he failed to get his club beyond the first round for the second straight season.
He questioned whether he would coach at all before the Americans - with whom he had previously served as an assistant - gave him an offer in mid-August.
"I thought I was going to be sitting and watching a lot of hockey this season," said Hiller.
Instead, he will guide the Americans against the Calgary Hitmen for the league title and a Memorial Cup berth, starting Friday.
Americans GM and part-owner Bob Tory said Hiller passed a major test as he took over a veteran team from Don Nachbaur, one of the winningest coaches in WHL history, who left to coach the Ottawa Senators' top farm team in Binghampton, N.Y .
"When Don left, I knew that Jim was the guy I wanted for the job," said Tory. "I went through the interview process but Jim took the necessary steps to get to this. I'm so happy for him, because he left our team and went and coached in the (B.C. Hockey League with Alberni Valley), which a lot of guys wouldn't do, and was successful there."
Despite his difficulties in Chilliwack, Hiller guided his team through some adversity in this series as the Americans overcame a 2-1 deficit in games. Patrick Holland's goal 26 seconds into the third period broke a 2-2 deadlock before the Americans dominated the rest of the game.
With the loss, Giants coach Don Hay will have to wait until the spring of 2011 for another chance to break the WHL's all-time playoff coaching win record. He remains tied with former Portland Winterhawks and Edmonton Oil Kings bench boss Ken Hodge at 101.
"I thought both teams played hard and, credit to them, they played better," said Hay.
Justin Feser, Johnny Lazo, Kruise Reddick and Sergei Drozd also scored for the Americans, who beat Vancouver in all four of their regular-season meetings. Tri-City's Tyler Schmidt provided three assists.
Milan Kytnar and Craig Cunningham replied for the Giants, who were also ousted from the Western Conference championship series last year.
After trailing 1-0 early, the Americans led 2-1 after the first period and the score was tied 2-2 after the second. All goals in the first 40 minutes came on the power play before the Americans broke the game open with three unanswered goals in the third.
Power plays were ultimately the difference as both clubs recorded 32 shots. All but two of the game's goals came during man-advantage situations.
"I thought it was a little unusual to have a lot of power plays like that," said Tri-City goaltender Drew Owsley, who made 30 saves and was chosen most valuable player in the series. "But our penalty kills were good, and we didn't give up much on the power play."
Tri-City converted three of seven chances while Vancouver went two-for-nine.
"I thought in the third we came out and got the job done," said Reddick. "It was different with all those (power plays). Some guys don't really get in the game. It's a different pace out there."
Holland netted the winner as he whacked Schmidt's rebound through Vancouver goaltender Mark Segal as he tried to freeze the puck. Hay protested the goal, but a replay showed that Segal never had control of the disc.
Reddick doubled Tri-City's lead to 4-2 with another power-play marker about 2 1/2 minutes later, erasing any further doubt. The goal came while Vancouver captain Lance Bouma was serving his fourth penalty of the game, three of which resulted in power play chances.
"We had trouble killing penalties the whole series and I thought that really hurt us," said Hay.
The Americans reached the final after missing on three earlier conference championship opportunities - the last only two seasons ago.
"It's going to be a tough series," said Owsley of the league final. "(The Hitmen) are a great team. They've got a good offence and a great goalie, so we're going to have to bring our A game obviously."