With 3 straight wins under their belt at home, the Chiefs found themselves with a 2 point lead over Tri City as the Americans and Chiefs squared off in a home and home series in the last weekend of the regular season. Spokane owned the tiebreaker over Tri with more regular season wins (42-40), so a win in the first game Friday night at the Spokane Arena in the Chiefs final regular season home game would give Spokane the 4th seed and home ice over Tri City in their first round playoff series. Spokane had lost their last meeting at Tri in mid-February when the Ams beat up the Chiefs 6-0 in a game that wasn't that close. With that defeat in mind, Spokane set out to return the favor on Friday.
The first period was back and forth as each team got off 8 shots on goal, but Spokane got the only two power plays of the period and would take advantage on the very first one. Spokane goalie Eric Williams turned away a breakaway from Tri City's Justin Feser early in the power play. The Chiefs would then Brenden Kichton find Alessio Bertaggia breaking through the neutral zone, and Bertaggia would fire his 29th goal of the season past Ams goalie Troy Trombley at 12:44 of the period to give the Chiefs a 1-0 lead after one. Spokane would take control of the game in the second...more specifically Carter Proft would do so for the Chiefs. Proft would net his 10th of the year on a shot from the slot at 3:12 to give Spokane a 2-0 edge. Proft then scored on a rebound on the power play at 14:13 to make it 3-0 Spokane after the second period.
The Chiefs would not let off the gas in the third, as they would put the game away. Mitch Holmberg's backhander at 7:24, his 39th of the season, would put Spokane up 4-0. Tyler King then scored from the point on the power play at 13:44 to make it a 5-0 game. Spokane put the finishing touches on a 6-0 win when Liam Stewart hit Jackson Playfair net front at 18:29 to cap off Williams 4th shutout of the season. Spokane outshot the Americans 28-20 as the Chiefs went 3-7 on the power play, while going a perfect 2-2 on the penalty kill. The win wrapped up the 4th seed for the Chiefs as they will get the home ice over Tri City in their first round series.
The clinching of the home ice didn't put a damper on the game the following night as the two teams squared off in Tri Cities. The Americans treated a sell out crowd with something to cheer about in the first period when Connor Rankin scored on the power play at 14:16 of the first to hand the Americans a 1-0 lead after one. Spokane would jump back in the game in the second when Jeremy McIntosh scored his first goal of the year on a wrister from the slot at 12:34 to even the contest at one after the second period. The Chiefs then seized their first lead when Dylan Walchuk's slap shot from the left circle on the power play at 5:55 made it 2-1 Spokane. The lead didn't last long though, as Feser would tie the game just 1:59 later to send the game to overtime.
The two teams had played into overtime 2 times previously, with the Americans Malte' Stromwall winning both contests with goals in the first minute of OT. That was certainly in the back of my mind as this one got underway, but Stromwall wasn't on the ice to start the extra session, and the Chiefs didn't wait for him to decide it either. Todd Fiddler hit Brenden Kichton on the breakout and Kichton was joined by Blake Gal on a 2 on 1 rush up ice. Kichton's shot on net was slammed home by Gal on the rebound just 34 seconds into overtime and the Chiefs secured a 3-2 win to sweep the weekend series. The victory also assured Spokane of winning the season series 7-3-2 as they will now head to their playoff series with the Americans with the momentum of two straight wins over their biggest rivals.
There was still one more game to be played in the regular season though, and the Chiefs headed West to take on the top team in the WHL, the Portland Winterhawks. Spokane sat 6 of their top 7 scorers for the game, as it gave the team to rest some of the regulars that have logged a lot of minutes through an injury filled campaign for the team. Defenseman Reid Gow and Kichton, along with forwards Mike Aviani, Holmberg, Bertaggia and Walchuk all got a well deserved night off as it gave some of the younger players a chance to step up into roles on special teams and more ice time.
Unfortunately for many, they failed to take advantage of their more expanded roles, as the Winterhawks jumped all over the Chiefs in the first period. Portland would get goals from Ty Rattie at 4:59, Paul Bittner at 16:23 and Taylor Peters on the power play at 18:06 to take a commanding 3-0 lead after one. Goalie Garret Hughson must have felt like the goalie for the Charlestown Chiefs in 'Slap Shot' in the first as the Hawks peppered him with 15 shots, while the Chiefs spent hardly any time in the attack zone, mustering just 6 shots. The Chiefs would get back in the game early in the second as Markson Bechtold, a recent call up for Spokane, scored his 2nd goal in 5 games with a blast from the left circle to cut the lead to 3-1 at the 8:07 mark of the second.
Spokane then had a hugeee chance to get right back in the game when Portland's Joe Mahon did his best to give the Chiefs the longest power play in the history of the game. As it was, Mahon took 3 separate minor penalties in the same sequence to give Spokane a 6 minute power play late in the second. It's the first time I've ever seen this occur, and I was thinking that scoring just one goal would get the Chiefs right back in the game at 3-2.
Unfortunately for Spokane, the Chiefs generated nothinggg off of 6 minutes of power play opportunity. The Winterhawks then delivered the dagger with Keegan Iverson scored off a face-off with just 10 seconds left in the second to put Portland up 4-1 heading to the third. The third period was anti-climactic as the Hawks scored two power play goals to wrap up a convincing 6-1 win. It was certainly a disappointing end to the season, but the Chiefs did finish the year winning 9 of 11 to get the 4th spot in the playoffs and they did end the season with 90 points...no small feat.
But now the real season begins as the Chiefs get ready to square off with the Americans for the third straight year. Two years ago, Spokane won in 6 games to advance to the Western Finals. Last year it was Tri that rallied in game 7 to move on to the West Finals. This year it's a first round series, as the winner will in all likelihood meet Portland in the West Semi's. This series willll be the best of the West first round...withouttt question. Both teams are evenly matched and once again home ice may decide things, as the team with home ice has won the previous two series. Spokane will need their best players to be their best, as Kichton, Holmberg, Fiddler, Aviani, Bertaggia and Walchuk will be expected to carry the scoring load. The play of Liam Stewart and Connor Chartier will be huge as well, as they must defend well against the likes of the Americans Justin Feser, Malte' Stromwall, and Connor Rankin.
It should be a dandy of a series as another Highway 395 bragging rights matchup begins Friday and Saturday night at the Spokane Arena for games 1 and 2. The series will shift to Tri Cities for games 3, 4, and 5 due to the Arena being used for the NCAA Women's basketball tournament. I'll have the call of game 1 Friday on 1510 KGA beginning at 6:30pm with the puck drop at 7pm. Game 2 should be on 1510, but if the Gonzaga men advance to round 3 Saturday in their tournament, their game could conflict with the Chiefs. IF it doesn't, then the game is the same times on 1510. IF it does, then game 2 will be on 790 KJRB starting at 6:30pm with the pre-game. Playoff hockey is here...and we hope to see you at the rink!