There is no question in my mind that it's always a lot more fun to have something to play for in the final week of the regular season than to play for nothing at all. Fortunately for the Chiefs, they had a lottt to play for in the final 4 games of the 2011 regular season. Spokane began the week just one point back of Portland for the top spot in the Western Conference playoffs as the Chiefs started off on Wednesday against the Chilliwack Bruins.
Chilliwack was in a fight themselves, as they had won 7 of their last 9 to move into contention for the 5th spot in the playoff race. The first period was fairly uneventful as both teams traded chances, but neither team was able to get on the board. The second period was about as dominant a period as I've seen Spokane play offensively this year, but despite putting up an amazing 32 shots in the second, the Chiefs found themselves trailing 1-0 after two. The Bruins Ryan Howse scored on a rebound with just 3 seconds left in the period on Chilliwack's 8th shot of the stanza to incredibly give the Bruins the lead going into the final 20 minutes. All I could think about was if the Chiefs lose this game, there was going to be not only a lot of head shaking, but any chance of winning the West would be history....and what a way to go!
Fortunately, Spokane kept up the pressure in the third and pulled even on their 60th shot of the night when Matt Marantz scored on a rebound of a Steve Kuhn shot midway through the period to tie the game at one. Bruin goalie Lucas Gore was unbelievable all night for Chilliwack as he would end up turning away 72 shots in regulation to force the game to overtime. The Chiefs would put up 5 more in OT, and get a great chance to win with a 5-3 power play over the final 1:25, but would fail to find a way to beat Gore and the game would go to a shootout.
All I could think about was, greatttt...now the game is going to be decided by Gore, who's been standing on his head all night, stopping sand from falling through cracks and juggling at the same time. The Chiefs went first, and remarkably enough, Tyler Johnson scored through the five hole to give Spokane a 1-0 lead in round one. Spokane goalie James Reid, who'd had a relatively quiet evening compared to Gore, stopping just 23 through overtime, turned away the Bruins Kevin Sundher in the first round to keep it 1-0 Chiefs. In round two, Spokane's Blake Gal had the ugliest, luckiest, and yet most beautiful goal for the Chiefs on the night as the puck drifted off his stick, past Gore and off the left goal post. By some cruel twist of fate for Gore and the Bruins, the puck hit right off Gore's skate and slid across the goal line to make it 2-0 Spokane. Somehow it didn't seem fitting that a guy that had stopped practically everyyy shot thrown at him would lose on a non-shot. But when Reid denied Robin Soudek in round two, the Chiefs had persevered with a 2-1 shootout win, their second straight in a shootout coming off a similar win the previous Saturday over Kootenay.
The Chiefs put up a franchise record 78 shots, snapping the mark of 75 set by the 1996 Chiefs in a win over Prince George. So Spokane had somehowww managed to take a win from the Bruins and set the stage for a climactic weekend. First up were the Seattle Thunderbirds, a team that had beaten Spokane in the two teams previous two meetings. The last loss had a particularly bad 5-1 beating at home in which the T-Birds had broken open a 2-1 game with a 3 goals in the first 5:05 of the third period.
This time around, Spokane was determined to end the modest two game skid. In the Chiefs regular season home finale, Spokane came out rolling in the first period and scored just 2:31 in on a Collin Valcourt backhand to take a 1-0 lead. The Chiefs would follow up midway through the period as Valcourt's linemate, Darren Kramer, scored on a rebound to make it 2-0 Spokane. Anthony Bardaro would cap off a 16 shot, 3 goal first with his 21st of the season to give the Chiefs a 3 goal cushion heading into the second.
Neither team scored in the second, thanks to Chiefs goalie Mac Engel in particular, as he stopped Seattle on a couple of great chances, including one in the closing seconds of the period after a Chiefs turnover in front of Spokane's net. Spokane fed off that save in the first minute of the third, as Matt Marantz scored off a Blake Gal pass on a 2-1 rush to put Spokane up 4-0. The Chiefs would then close out the Thunderbirds on Gal's empty netter in the final minute and a half as Spokane claimed a 5-0 victory and their season high 9th straight win.
The win not only kept Spokane just one point back of Portland, but pretty much knocked Seattle out of playoff contention with their loss. It had been one of the Chiefs better games over their 9 game win streak and was a perfect way to cap a 27 win season on home ice in 36 games. Now the big challenge remained as the team headed to Tri Cities and Portland to end the regular season.
First up were the Americans, a team Spokane had beaten 5 straight going into the two teams final matchup of the season. It was a streak that had been gained for the most part while the Ams had suffered some injuries up front, and Tri was getting healthier going into Saturday's matchup. A sellout crowd and a hungry team anxious to end Spokane's dream of a Western title added up to a tough game for the Chiefs.
Spokane would jump out to a 1-0 lead on a Dominick Uher power play goal just over 6 minutes into the contest. Tri City came right back with 3 straight goals on 4-4 situations to take a 3-1 lead. Kruise Reddick had the last two tallies on his way to a 4 point night as the Ams looked like they were going to blow the Chiefs out of the Tri Cities. Spokane would answer though in the final minute of the first, as Gal's one timer on the power play brought the Chiefs within 3-2 after two.
Spokane built on the momentum of that goal in the second, as Anthony Bardaro scored the Chiefs third power play goal of the night at 14:37 to bring the boys back even at 3 apiece. At this point, I felt it was a game for the taking for Spokane. Unfortunately, the Chiefs took two penalties in the final minute and a half of the second to give the Ams two separate power play opportunities. The first penalty for a hook on Corey Baldwin was a legitimate call and the Americans scored with just under a minute to go to take a 4-3 lead. The second call for goaltender interference on Steve Kuhn was in a word...awwwfulllll. Kuhn was pushed by Ams defenseman Matt McKenzie into Tri goalie Drew Owsley, then for good measure, McKenzie fell on Kuhn. Kuhn was cited for the penalty. Reallyyyy? Has this referee everrrr played? Unfortunately, the penalty led to another power play goal in the final 30 seconds of the period, and the Chiefs were suddenly down 5-3 after two. It was a criticallll swing in momentum and eventually it would cost Spokane the game.
The Chiefs would get back within one when Tyler Johnson scored his league leading 52nd goal of the season while Spokane had the extra attacker with just over 2 minutes left. The Chiefs would pull goalie Mac Engel again and get a greattt look when Dominick Uher tipped a shot over Owsley in the final minute. Unfortunately the puck also went over the goal and Spokane's shot at tying the game went overboard with it. The Americans Brendan Shinnimin would score his second of the night on an empty netter in the final seconds, and the Chiefs chances of winning the West came to an end, as Portland beat Seattle to put the Winterhawks 3 points up on the Chiefs with just one game to play.
It was a bitterly disappointing ending to what had been a great charge by Spokane in the final month of the season, but the Chiefs didn't have time to hang their heads as they still had one final game remaining; this one against the very Winterhawks team that had edged them for the crown. If there was one blessing to come out of Saturday's loss, it was a chance for some of Spokane's regulars to rest up and sit out a game before the following weekend's playoffs.
Sunday's game started much like the night before, with the Chiefs falling behind early. Portland's Ryan Johansen was a one man wrecking crew in the first, scoring two goals in the first 14:21 to make it 2-0 Hawks. Spokane would jump back into the game when Marek Kalus, seeing his first action in several weeks, scored on a power play to cut the lead to 2-1. Portland came right back and scored 1:03 later to regain the two goal lead at 3-1. Like they have all season though, the Chiefs fought back and scored 2 goals just 15 seconds apart to force a 3-3 tie after one. Anthony Bardaro got it started with a great tip of a Davis Vandane shot, then Bardaro found an open Connor Chartier, in his first WHL game, and Chartier scored to even the game heading into the second.
Spokane played their best period of the game in the second, as they outshot the Winterhawks 20-7 and came away with what turned out to be the game winner early in the second. Darren Kramer scored on a mad scramble net front to give the Chiefs a 4-3 lead heading into the third period. Goalie James Reid turned away the Hawks on all 12 of their shots in the third and Bardaro would bank a shot off Portland defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon on the power play at 14:12 to give the Chiefs a huge insurance goal and a 5-3 lead. Spokane would cap a 5 unanswered goal comeback when Tyler Johnson wrapped up the WHL goal scoring crown with his 53rd of the season on a empty netter in the final minute to cap a 6-3 Chiefs win. The victory was Spokane's 48th of the season and left the Chiefs that one agonizing point back of Portland for #1 in the West. The win did give the Chiefs the season series against the Hawks though by a 5-4 margin, as Spokane went an impressive 3-1 in Portland.
Now the quest for the playoffs begins as the Chiefs get ready to face the Chilliwack Bruins in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Games one and two will be in Chilliwack on Friday and Saturday nights. Spokane will return home for three straight at the Spokane Arena on Wednesday, March 30, Thursday, March 31 and a game five if necessary on Saturday, April 2. If the series is anything like the two teams last game in Spokane, it's going to be a dogfight of a first round for both clubs. Friday's game will be on 1510 KGA beginning at 7pm, with the puck drop at 7:30pm. Saturday's contest will begin at 6:30pm, with the puck drop at 7pm, also on 1510 KGA. Here's to a great post season, and we'll see you at the rink!