Spokane Chiefs Blog: Tough way to say goodbye
Posted on March 31, 2014 at 7:06 PM
Updated Monday, Mar 31 at 7:07 PM
Despite losing the first two games of their series with Victoria in overtime, there was no panic with the Chiefs as they returned home for games 3 and 4 of their best of 7 first round playoff. Two years earlier, Spokane had fallen behind 0-2 at Vancouver, only to return home to win 2 in a row on their way to taking 4 straight from the Giants. With that bit of history in the back of the minds of the veterans, the Chiefs opened game 3 at the Spokane Arena.
The start of the game was about as bad as Spokane could have forecast. After winning the opening face-off, the Chiefs turned the puck over at center ice. Victoria's Branden Magee took the puck to the right wing and hit a wide open Ben Walker in the slot, who in turn one timed the puck past goalie Eric Williams just 11 seconds into the game to give the Royals a 1-0 lead. Spokane never seemed to recover from that start, as the Chiefs were on their heels the rest of the period. Victoria would go up 2-0 just over 7.5 minutes into the game when Austin Carroll, the Royals leading goal scorer in the regular season, converted a 3 on 1 rush. Carroll had been held pointless in the first two games in Victoria, but after a Jordan Fransoo power play goal, would convert his second goal of the night on the power play late in the first to cap a 4 goal first and give the Royals a 4-0 lead after one.
The Chiefs would get a little life midway through the second when Liam Stewart scored his second goal in as many games at 10:04 to bring Spokane within 4-1. The Royals would snuff out any momentum when Logan Nelson scored just 29 seconds later to put Victoria up 5-1 after two. That goal pretty much ended the competitive aspect of this contest as a late 5 on 3 power play goal by Victoria would sew up a convincing 6-1 win and an even bigger 3-0 series lead. Only 2 WHL teams had ever come back from an 0-3 deficit; the Chiefs over Portland in 1995-96, and Kelowna over Seattle last season. Needless to say, history was not on Spokane's side going into game 4 the following evening.
The Chiefs were hoping to start the improbable comeback with a win in game 4, but for the third time in 4 games against the Royals, it was Victoria that scored first. Fransoo would get his second in as many nights late in the first period to give the Royals a 1-0 lead. Spokane would counter though as defenseman Tyson Helgeson, in just his 4th league game, banged home a rebound with just 57 seconds left to tie the game at one. Just when it looked like the Chiefs would head to the intermission tied, Victoria would re-take the lead only 20 seconds later when Ben Walker netted one from the right wing and the Royals took a 2-1 advantage after 20 minutes.
The two teams would go scoreless through the second in an evenly played period. Spokane would come out in the third and even the game when Connor Chartier tipped home a Helgeson shot 3:32 into the period to make it 2-2. Spokane would take the initiative offensively, but would be unable to get the lead, something they had only 40 seconds in the series. Midway through the third, the Chiefs would get caught up ice in the offensive zone, and the Royals would take advantage, as Carroll got his 3rd goal in 2 nights at 10:06 of the period to give Victoria a 3-2 lead. Nelson would seal the game when he took a Carroll pass and finished off a 2 on 1 rush at 15:41 to wrap up a 4-2 Royals win and give Victoria a 4-0 series sweep.
It was the first time the Chiefs had been swept in an opening round series since losing to Everett in the 2004 season. The victory was also the first series win for Victoria in franchise history since they started as the Chilliwack Bruins in 2005. Spokane was outplayed in every facet of this series simply because the Royals have more talent and played like it. Losing the first two games in OT were a big setback mentally, as even just one win could have seen this series go much longer than the 4 games played. The game also marked the end of the careers of Mitch Holmberg, Mike Aviani and Eric Williams for Spokane. Boy, will they be missed. They were the best set of 20 year olds on any team in the league, and Spokane will be extremelyyy hard pressed to replace the 110 goals and 199 points Holmberg and Aviani put up, and Williams goaltending was a majorrr reason the team put up 40 wins for the 7th straight season.
The team will now have the unenviable task of trying to decide who of their 6 19 year olds to keep. Spokane can only have 3 20 year olds, as the team will now have to narrow down from Liam Stewart, Connor Chartier, Cole Wedman, Carter Proft, Reid Gow, and Marcus Messier as to who stays and who goes. Each player has their pluses, and I'm just glad I don't have to make those choices in the off season and the beginning of next year. One thing is for sure, the team is going to need a biggg step up offensively by a number of the younger players next season to have a chance at the playoffs. The U.S. Division figures to be tough again, so incumbent goaltender Garret Hughson will have to fill some big shoes from Williams to give Spokane a chance.
I am excited about the young group of defensemen coming back. Rookies Helgeson and Evan Fiala show great promise. Colton Bobyk showed good development as the season progressed, and with Jason Fram coming off a career season, not to mention returners Jeremy McIntosh, Matt Sozanski and Jeff Rayman, the team should be pretty solid on the blue line next year. Up front, Adam Helewka should be the guy to lead the way offensively. Forwards Riley Whittingham, Keanu Yamamoto, and Dominic Zwerger will need to be 20 goal scorers next season. Markson Bechtold, Jacob Cardiff, Adam Hasic and Hudson Elyniuk will need to find consistency in their game to hit double figures in goals and become factors defensively.
It will interesting, as it always is, to see who develops in the off-season and changes their games upward going into the new season. Spokane will be young next year and there will be growing pains especially early in the campaign. Let's hope the team continues the winning tradition they've had the last 7 years, as the Chiefs have never had that many years winning 40 or more games in a row in franchise history. The team will be hard pressed to continue that, but therein lies the challenge for the returning players. Remember, many picked Spokane to finish last in the division this year and looked what happened. I hope everyone has a great summer, and we'll see you at training camp in August!