It didn't end the way it was supposed to.
That was the thought that went through my mind as Gary Nunn's goal went over goalie Dustin Tokarski's shoulder and gave Vancouver a 1-0 overtime win in game 7 of the Chiefs playoff series with the Giants. It was supposed to be a year where the Chiefs made a deep playoff run in their quest to become the first team since Kamloops in '92-'93 to repeat as Memorial Cup champions.
As it was, the goal just summarized an oh so close campaign for Spokane that began with high hopes and ultimately became a battle through injuries, player absences, and up and down performances. One thing can be said though...this Chiefs team battled like no other, winning 46 regular season games and becoming the first Chiefs team to win over 40 games in back to back regular seasons.
The series with Vancouver showed the battle level of the team. After falling behind 0-2 with 2 losses in Vancouver, the Chiefs fought back to win three straight to take a 3-2 series lead. Spokane played their best game of the series in game 3, scoring a convincing 5-2 win, as Drayson Bowman had the game winning goal and 2 assists in a three goal third period that snapped a 2-2 tie.
In game 4, Tyler Johnson's first period power play goal, and Dustin Tokarski's 31 saves led the Chiefs to a 1-0 win to even the series at two apiece. Game 5 would prove to be an all time epic, as the two teams fought through the second longest game in Western Hockey League history before deciding a winner.
After the Chiefs fell behind 2-1 after one, Bowman brought the Chiefs even with his league high 8th goal of the playoffs early in the third to tie the game at 2. Little did we know the game was just getting started! The teams would fight through 3 scoreless overtimes...a complete second game on the night...with nobody scoring. Finally in the 4th overtime, the Chiefs Blake Gal got free on a breakaway and with a little help from Giants defenseman Mike Berube's stick, put the puck past Vancouver goalie Tyson Sexsmith at 6:05 of the 4th overtime to win it 3-2 for Spokane.
Like many Chiefs fans, I thought that goal...and that game...would lift the Chiefs on the kind of run we saw in last year's Memorial Cup championship. It certainly looked that way in early in game six on Easter Sunday.
Tyler Johnson struck again in the first period to give the Chiefs a 1-0 lead. The Chiefs couldn't sustain the pressure though...and in fact probably let off the gas a little bit, and Vancouver came back from the 1-0 deficit in the third. The Giants scored 2 goals in just over 11 minutes of the period to make it 2-1 Vancouver. Spokane fought back though, as defenseman Stephan Ulmer tied the game at 2 with just 1:24 to go in the game.
For the second straight game, the teams went to overtime. Vancouver looked like they had won the game on a Mike Piluso rebound in the first minute of OT, but the whistle had been blown by the referee when the puck was covered by Tokarski, so play went on. Spokane had a chance to win when Bowman blew down the left wing and snapped a shot past Sexsmith, but the puck hit the post and the play went on...and on...
In the second overtime, a Chiefs turnover led to a 2 on 1 rush for the Giants and Evander Kane's goal at 5:31 of the second OT won it 3-2 for Vancouver. It was a crushing loss for Spokane, who really could have used the rest for an upcoming series with Kelowna.
As it was, the team had to take the long bus ride back to Vancouver for game 7. Spokane really came out well in that contest, showing good energy, being very responsible in their defensive zone and creating several point blank offensive opportunities. Brady Calla probably had the best shot in the first period, but was denied point blank net front by Sexsmith as the teams remained scoreless.
The game settled into a typical Chiefs playoff contest, as the two teams had limited offensive chances, while both goalies, Tokarski and Sexsmith, made the saves they had to make. After 3 periods of regulation, the teams were scoreless and for the third straight game, headed to overtime. I reallyyyy had a good feeling about it for Spokane because they had been there soooo many times before over the last couple of seasons. A tight, defensive game, in overtime, on the road. It seemed destined that the Chiefs would win it.
Alas, less than 2 minutes into OT, Nunn redirected a Nick Ross shot over Tokarski's shoulder and the season, and the dream of another Memorial Cup run was over.
For Brady Calla, Trevor Glass, and captain Justin McCrae, their junior hockey and Chiefs careers came to an end as they graduate after this season. For Ondrej Roman, he will move on as a 20 year old to play in the Dallas Stars system next year. For Dustin Tokarski, he will do the same in the Tampa Bay Lightning farm system, and for Drayson Bowman, his NHL career is already underway, as he was called up the day after the loss to play for the Hurricanes.
It's a lot to lose for the Chiefs. Much like last season, when the team lost captain Chris Bruton, Judd Blackwater, David Rutherford, Justin Falk and Curtis Kelner, the team will now have to look for new players to take over. I think this season's losses will be tougher to rebuild. The team loses one the best scorers the franchise has ever seen in Bowman, and probably the greatest goalie it's ever had in Tokarski. Glass was a leader and a rock on the blue line with work ethic. Roman was a premier set up artist and scoring threat that will not easily be replaced. His linemate Calla was a perfect compliment, freeing things up for Roman and Bowman with his work along the boards and netfront. McCrae, who battled though a ton of injuries and illness this season, was so versatile for the Chiefs in that he could center or play winger, be a scorer or a checker, and his leadership as captain will be missed.
It's a group that will forever be remembered in Spokane by Chiefs fans as one that brought not only a Memorial Cup trophy, but a winning attitude back to the organization. While it's exciting to see the boys move on to a professional career, or off to a university level, it's sad to see them leave. They brought the fans, and myself, a ton of memories we'll never forget. Thank you boys for being Chiefs. We'll certainly miss you.
Now it's time to get ready for next year. Camp starts in August, and with a number of veterans like Mitch Wahl, Tyler Johnson, Levko Koper, Stephan Ulmer, Brett Bartman, Dustin Donaghy and possibly Jared Spurgeon coming back, the future does look bright. Not to mention defenseman Jared Cowen, who will go high in the upcoming NHL draft, he will return after missing the last half of the season with a knee injury. No telling what this team would have accomplished with him on the blue line this playoff season.
Another Chiefs season is in the books and let's hope next year is just as fun to watch as the last two! See you at camp in August...