With the series heading back to the Spokane Arena, the Chiefs had to feel good having split the first two games against Tri City down in Kennewick. Spokane had played very well at home all season, and had won 3 straight from Vancouver on home ice in their first round playoff series. The one worry was that Tri City had won 3 straight at the Arena from the Chiefs at the Arena to end the regular season and the Americans had finished 4-2 in Spokane during the regular campaign.
Game 3 was expected to be as close as the first two games of the series, both of which had been decided by one goal margins. Spokane had failed to score first in the previous two contests, and that trend would continue in game 3. Tri Cities Nate McMaster would score his first goal of the playoffs on a rebound midway through the first to give the Americans an early 1-0 lead. Tri's Brendan Shinnimin, the WHL's leading scorer during the season would add to the Ams lead with a backhander at 14:56 to to give Tri City a commanding 2-0 lead after one. The Chiefs offense went AWOL for the most part in the first two periods, mustering a mere 16 shots on goal as the Ams took the 2 goal advantage to the third period.
In the third though, Spokane's Steve Kuhn poked home a rebound after having 2 other quality chances denied earlier in the game, as he scored after a Reid Gow shot at 12:16 to cut the lead to 2-1. The Chiefs offense woke up at that point, but could not get another shot past Tri City goalie Ty Rimmer and Tri City took a 2-1 series lead with a 2-1 win. The big thing with the win was the Chiefs now had to find another victory in Kennewick, which would be a tall task. Meantime, the Chiefs now knew they had to win game 4 or risk seeing their season end in game 5 the following evening.
You would expect a desperation mode from Spokane given the circumstances and that's exactly what happened. The Chiefs came out blazing in the first period, putting up 2 goals in a period where Spokane could have scored 5 with some breaks. Collin Valcourt scored on a wrister from the slot after stealing the puck in the Americans zone just 3:42 in to make it 1-0 Chiefs. Mitch Holmberg then rifled a shot from the left circle midway through the period to give Spokane a 2-0 edge heading into the second. Tri City would bounce right back in the second though. Derek Ryckman scored just 3 minutes in to cut the lead in half at 2-1. Adam Hughesman then converted on the power play at 12:32 and suddenly the game was even at 2 and very much up for grabs.
Spokane would keep Tri City at bay for the rest of the second and the entire third period. The Chiefs started to slowly re-establish control of the game offensively in the third but would fail to score in the final 40 minutes of regulation as the two squads headed to overtime for the 2nd time in 4 games in the series. The two teams traded jabs on offense in overtime, but a turnover by Tri City would do them in eventually. Spokane's Collin Valcourt picked up the loose puck at center ice and fed an open Dominick Uher. Uher went down the right wing and backhanded the puck short side past Rimmer at 6:28 and now the series had become a best of three. It marked Spokane's 2nd overtime win in the series and the Chiefs were hoping the momentum as the two teams headed to Kennewick for game 5 the following night.
It certainly looked like there was some carry over early in period 1 Saturday, as Steve Kuhn took a Blake Gal pass behind the Ams defense and scored just 4:04 in to give the Chiefs a 1-0 advantage. The Americans would counter on a Patrick Holland rebound at 13:33 to tie the game at 1 heading into the second. Once again Spokane would come out firing to start the period, as Reid Gow scored just 41 seconds in to have the Chiefs re-take the lead at 2-1. Back would come the Americans as Hughesman swatted a rebound out of mid-air on the power play at 7:37 to even the game at two. Spokane would take advantage of a Tri City power play chance midway through the second when Uher would rifle a shot from the right win to score his second shorthanded goal of the post season to put the Chiefs back up at 3-2. The momentum didn't last long though, as Tri defenseman Mitch Topping scored on a shot from the point just 45 seconds later to pull the Americans to 3-3. Tri would complete the comeback with a goal from Justin Hamonic from the right point that hit off a Chiefs defender at 16:44 of the second as the Ams took a 4-3 lead into the third.
Hamonic's goal seemed to take the wind out of the Chiefs sails in the third, as Spokane managed a mere 5 shots in the period. Tri City would score an empty netter from Connor Rankin with just a minute left to wrap up a 5-3 win and give the Americans a 3-2 series lead heading back to Spokane for game 6. As it turned out, this game would be the only one in the 7 game series that would be decided by more than a goal and it took an empty netter to do that. The Chiefs were now in the tough task of having to win 2 straight against the top seeded Americans.
Game 6 was now a must win for the Chiefs and they would get a wake up call right off the hop against the Americans, as the Ams Ryckman scored his second goal in 3 games just 2:56 into the game to put Tri City up 1-0. The Chiefs answered right back though on their first power play of the night, as Uher scored for the third straight game at 5:35 of the first to tie the game at 1. Holmberg then scored his team leading 10th of the playoffs when his pass on a 2-1 with Mike Aviani went through Rimmer's pads just 53 seconds after Uher's goal to give Spokane a 2-1 lead after one. The Chiefs would cough up the lead on the power play though, when Justin Feser converted a 2 on 1 while the Ams were shorthanded at 8:47 of the second to even the game at two. Spokane would still convert the power play chance though as Kuhn would tip a Tanner Mort shot at 9:20 to get the Chiefs back up at 3-2. The lead would hold until Holland would walk in on Chiefs goalie Eric Williams on a breakaway at 18:31 to tie the game back up at 3 heading into the third period.
Neither team would get on the board in the third as the Americans outshot the Chiefs 8-6, but there were no high quality chances in the final 20 minutes of regulation for either club. In the overtime, it looked like the OT period would be more of the same from the third. The Chiefs Tyler King would poke a loose puck up ice across the Ams blue line to Connor Chartier. Chartier would then find Liam Stewart on the left side and the Chiefs Rookie of the Year would rifle one top shelf past Rimmer at 9:33 of overtime to give Spokane a 4-3 win and send the series back to Kennewick tied at 3-3. All 3 Spokane wins had come in overtime and you just had the feeling if game 7 came down to OT, the Chiefs would have the distinct advantage in that situation.
Game 7 would be 2 nights after the dramatic overtime victory and Spokane would have to find a way to pick up a 2nd win in one of the toughest barns in the league. Spokane weathered a major storm by the Americans in the first period as Tri outshot the Chiefs 14-4 in the first. Spokane would take a 1-0 lead though when Uher scored again for the 4th straight game, as he tipped a Blake Gal shot on the power play at 18:48 of the first period. Eric Williams did the rest, turning aside all 14 Ams shots as Tri City failed on both of their power play chances. The second period was another Tri City offensive onslaught as they outshot Spokane 15-5. The Ams would equalize on a Brian Williams rebound at 5:03 to even the contest at one as the game went to the third period.
It looked like Spokane would pull the upset when Holmberg scored on an Aviani pass net front 5:47 into the final stanza to give the Chiefs a 2-1 lead. The way Williams was playing in net, it seemed that goal would be enough, as Williams turned aside point blank chances from Hughesman and Feser to keep Spokane up by one. The crowd was sensing that Williams was standing on his head this night, and was in a prime position to steal the win for Spokane.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, it was not to be. A puck bounced out of the slot and into the right circle to the open stick of Malte Stromwall and he roofed one over Williams at 14:38 of the third to tie the game at two. The building was rocking now, and it would go insane when Shinnimin would take advantage of a Chiefs turnover at the Americans blue line and score just 1:04 after Stromwall's goal to give Tri their first lead of the night at 3-2.
Spokane would pull Williams in the final minute and a half, but never got a serious shot on net and the Americans came away with a 3-2 win to take the series at 4-3. It marked the Chiefs third straight game 7 loss in the last 4 playoff years, and was just the second series win for Tri City over Spokane in 6 tries. Ironically enough, the other win came in game 7 in Tri Cities back in 1995. It was a tough way to end a season, but the team had nothing to hang its' head about as they took the top seeded team in the West to 7 games, something that no one outside of the Chiefs locker room would have believed.
The game also marked the end of the careers of 20 year olds Corey Baldwin, Steve Kuhn and Darren Kramer. Their leadership will definitely be missed next season. I hope Baldwin gets a shot with an NHL team. In my mind, he's the most improved Chief over the last 2 seasons...byyy farrr. His physical presence will be missed on the blue line. Steve Kuhn set a record that may never be equaled as he played in over 300 straight games in Spokane..without ever missing one contest! He's the Cal Ripken of Spokane hockey. Darren Kramer was a breath of fresh air in his 2 years and I hope he does well in the Ottawa Senators camp next season. Dominick Uher will also not be back, as he will no doubt be playing in the Pittsburgh Penguins system next season. Seeing Dom's development as a person since he came to Spokane as a 17 year old has been a joy. He deserves nothing but success down the road. The big question mark is whether injured defenseman Brenden Kichton will be in the Islanders system, or back as a 20 year old next year. That will be a wait and see for the team.
One thing we do know, the other three 20 year olds next year will be Dylan Walchuk, who was a spark since joining the team at the trade deadline, Blake Gal, who upped his game in the playoffs, and Davis Vandane. The rest of the team will be back, and that bodes well for the Chiefs, who will welcome back both Williams and Mac Engel in net. The team's leading scorers in the players, Aviani and Holmberg are both returning, as is most of the forwards and defenseman on the squad. It's going to be exciting to see if any of the new faces coming up will make an impact, but the players coming back need to take their games to that next level to help Spokane get back to the top of the WHL. It will be fun to see and I'm looking forward to seeing how the summer work turns out. Here's to having a great summer, and we'll see you at camp in late August!