Posted on March 25, 2013 at 9:28 PM
Some people describe Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year, but for me, it's playoff time in the hockey season. The game takes on an intensity and with it, brings on an essense that is probably impossible to describe fully in words. I may be coming off as waxing poetic here, but the passion of the game is unmatched when the playoffs are in full swing. With that buildup, the Chiefs opened their post season of 2013 this past weekend at home as they hosted the arch rival Tri City Americans in the first round of their Western Conference playoff series. This marks the 3rd straight season the two have squared off in the playoffs, having split the past two. Spokane won in 6 games two years ago in the West semi-finals, while Tri returned the favor with a 7th game win in the West semi's last season. The team that had home ice advantage had won both of those series, so when Spokane rallied in the final 3 weeks of the regular campaign to seize the 4th spot in the West and home ice over the 5th seed Americans, it seemed to bode well for the Chiefs.
Home ice wouldn't mean a lot though if Spokane split the first two games at the Spokane Arena. This year, the Arena is tied up with the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament the week following the first two games, so the Chiefs and Americans were forced into a 2-3-2 format, meaning the Chiefs would be facing a game 5 on enemy ice rather than their own. The last two games will be in Spokane, but a split would force the Chiefs to win at least 1 game in Tri or be out after 5 games. The two teams faced off Friday night in game one fully aware of how big each game is in this series. Spokane went with Eric Williams in goal, with Tri City going with rookie Troy Trombley, who had played well over the final month of the regular season after the Americans lost starter Eric Comrie to a season ending hip injury.
Game one would begin about as good as Spokane could hope for as Blake Gal scored on the Chiefs first shot, a backhander out front just 1:08 in to give the Chiefs a 1-0 lead. Tri City didn't take long to answer, as rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo, a bright prospect for the Ams, scored on a shot from the left point past a screened Williams to tie the game at one at 6:36 of the period. The Chiefs then re-took the lead, as it turns out for good, when Alessio Bertaggia had a perfect tip of a Reid Gow shot at 11:15 to give Spokane a 2-1 edge. Spokane would then take advantage of their only power play that they saw during the game, when Mitch Holmberg rebounded a shot in the left circle past Trombley at 13:39 to give the Chiefs a 3-1 lead after one. In the second, Trombley kept the Ams in the game with point blank saves on Holmberg and Gal to keep Tri City within 2 heading into the final period.
Spokane would put the game away midway through the third when Holmberg led an odd man rush down the left win and snapped a shot through Trombley's pads at 12:26 of the period to seal a 4-1 win. Williams was rock solid in goal, turning away 26 of 27 Tri City shots, including all 11 he faced in the third period, to give the Chiefs a 1-0 series lead. Spokane outshot the Americans 32-27, despite getting just one power play. The stats show two power play chances, but the final power play was awarded with 7 seconds left and Spokane on the penalty kill, so the penalty only made it a 4 on 4 to end the game....if you were wondering looking at the stats sheet. Spokane was a perfect 4 for 4 on the PK against a Tri City power play that was the third best in the WHL in the regular season, so safe to say the special teams were a huge part of the game one win for Spokane.
They would prove to be huge the next night as well in game two. Once again it didn't take long to get on the scoreboard, but on Saturday it was the Americans who struck first. Defenseman Drydn Dow scored on a 4 on 4 just 5:24 into the game to give Tri a 1-0 lead. The goal set off a flurry of offense as the two teams combined for 5 goals in 5:27. Spokane would pull even at one when Liam Stewart got a fortuitous bounce to his stick in the slot and his one-timer beat Trombley at 6:59. Tyler King's slap shot from the left circle on the rush at 7:32 gave the Chiefs their first lead at 2-1, but Tri's Parker Bowles slapped home a rebound after Williams failed to control the puck net front at 8:27 to re-tie the game at two. Marcus Messier's shot off Williams found the net at 10:51 gave the Americans a 3-2 lead after one, despite the fact Spokane outshot Tri 15-4 in the first 20 minutes.
That had to be somewhat discouraging to Spokane, but you wouldn't have known it in the second. Blake Gal scored his second goal of the playoffs on a nice feed from Mitch Holmberg at 4:11 of the period to bring the Chiefs back even at 3. Todd Fiddler then stole a pass in the Ams zone and zipped one past Trombley at the 14 minute mark to give Spokane a 4-3 lead heading into the third. Tri would come out in the third and score on their first power play of the period at 8:41 to bring the Americans back in the game at 4 apiece. The game looked like it was heading to overtime when Dylan Walchuk simply outworked the Ams to the puck and fed an open Gal out front, who put home a backhand at 16:31 to put the Chiefs back up 5-4. Trombley would then turn the puck over behind his net and Mike Aviani would wrap around and tuck the puck in the open goal at 18:11 to sew up a 6-4 win and give the Chiefs a 2-0 series lead.
Spokane did what it had to do, and that was hold the home ice advantage. The challenge now is to keep the momentum going as they head to the Tri Cities for game 3 through 5. Obviously Spokane would loveee to wrap it up with a pair of wins in Kennewick, but the evenness of the two teams over the year says that outcome is closer to none than slim. The Americans will be a desperate hockey team on their home ice, and they have traditionally been one of the toughest teams to beat at home. Spokane knows the series can turn just as quickly with a pair of Tri City wins, so the Chiefs hope to keep the pedal down this week. I'll have the call on 1510 KGA for game 3 on Tuesday, game 4 on Thursday, and game 5, if necessary, on Saturday. The pre-game shows start up at 6:30pm with the puck drops at 7:05pm. It will be intense, fun hockey and we hope to see you at the rink!