With back to back shutout losses at home behind them, the Chiefs set out for their last big road trip of the regular season as they headed out for a 4 game road swing through Kelowna, Prince George and Seattle on a journey that would cover 8 days and over 1,500 miles on the bus. Spokane was hoping to find its' offense, as the team had lost 2-0 to Portland and 3-0 to Tri City at the Spokane Arena the previous weekend, and had seen their lead over Everett shrink to just one point for 5th place in the Western Conference playoff run. A week and a half was now left in the regular season, and with just 7 games left on the schedule, every game is huge this time of year.
The first game of the trip was only against the #1 team in Canadian Junior Hockey in the Kelowna Rockets. Spokane had played well against Kelowna this year, winning 2 of 3, including a dramatic 3rd period comeback in the Chiefs last visit to Kelowna on January 29th in a 6-5 shootout win. In the two teams last meeting, the Rockets scored in the final 30 seconds to edge Spokane 2-1 at the Spokane Arena February 12th. This game proved to be another close contest as the two teams would battle in their second straight defensive slugfest.
The team that had scored first in the previous 7 games between the two over the last two seasons had gone on to win, so when Connor Chartier put home a rebound on a backhander at 17:03 of the first period to give the Chiefs a 1-0 lead, things were looking good for Spokane. The Rockets would come back though as Nick Merkley would tip a Myles Bell pass on the power play with just 3 seconds left in the first period to tie the game at one. It was a disheartening goal as it looked like the Chiefs would have a lead after one, but instead Kelowna took the momentum into the second period. The Rockets controlled play through the period, but Chiefs goalie Eric Williams turned away 10 shots and got the help of the goal post on a couple Kelowna shots to keep the Rockets off the board as the game remained tied at one after two periods.
The Chiefs just had to win the third period to win the season series from the top ranked Rockets, but Kelowna would strike early to take the lead. After the two teams took matching minor penalties, Kelowna would take advantage of a Chiefs turnover to score on the 4 on 4 just 1:25 into the third as Merkley scored his second goal of the game. The Rockets would score again off a 4 on 4 at 16:56 of the period to go up 3-1 on Madison Bowey's shot from the blue line. The Chiefs would get a power play late in the game and would pull goalie Eric Williams to get a 6 on 4 advantage for about 45 seconds, but were unable to find the net as the offensive woes continued in a 3-1 loss. Spokane outshot Kelowna, but went 0-5 on the power play as the Chiefs have now managed just one goal in their last 180 minutes of action.
It's not the kind of streak to go on late in the season, but now the team had a chance to get the ship righted as they headed North to Prince George to take on the Cougars. Prince George is an explosive offensive team, led by former Chief Todd Fiddler, who has scored 45 goals this season, second only to the Chiefs Mitch Holmberg, his linemate last year. The Cougars have also given up 285 goals as a team this year, towards the bottom of the WHL. Spokane had won the previous two games against PG at the Arena, outscoring the Cougars 11-5 in the wins.
Friday was game one of the back to back contests, and it was important for the Chiefs to set the tone early in this brief series. Unfortunately the tone wasn't set offensively as Spokane failed to generate a power play, let alone a goal in the first period. Fortunately, the team was able to play good enough defense to turn away 2 Cougar power plays in the first and goalie Garret Hughson saved all 12 shots he faced as Spokane and Prince George went to the second period scoreless. PG would break through in the second though, as Troy Bourke at 3:09 and then former Chief Todd Fiddler struck at 9:19 to give the Cougars a 2-0 lead after two.
Spokane had now scored just 1 goal in its' last 11 periods of hockey and had showed little offensive power in the first two periods. The Chiefs would get a power play early in the third though, and would capitalize on Adam Helewka's goal at 3:32 to narrow the margin to 2-1. Mike Aviani would follow just 1:16 later with his 33rd goal of the year to tie the game at two and the Chiefs were off and running. Keanu Yamamoto would score his 10th of the season with just 5:01 left in the game to give Spokane a 3-2 lead. Aviani would seal the win with his second of the night on an empty netter at 18:52 to cap off a come from behind 4-2 win.
Mitch Holmberg notched 2 assists in the third to boost his WHL leading points total to 109, while Reid Gow put up 3 assists to take the team assist lead from Holmberg with 53 on the season. Helewka would finish with a goal and an assist, while Jason Fram scored 2 assists, as Spokane's top 5 scorers would combine for 11 of the Chiefs 12 points in the game.
Garret Hughson was huge in net as well, turning aside 34 Prince George shots to pick up his second straight win. The Chiefs were outshot 36-29 in the game, but went a perfect 3-3 on the penalty kill while a 1-2 power play jump started the Spokane 4 goal third. It was just Spokane's 6th win in 27 games when trailing after two periods and the offensive outburst in the third will hopefully get the Chiefs going the remaining 5 games of the regular season. Spokane is now just 4 points back of Seattle after this win for 4th, but still only lead Everett by a point for 5th going into Saturday's second contest with the Cougars in snowy Prince George.
It's alwaysss tough to win back to back games against the same team, especially on their ice, but you have to win the first game to even have a chance. Spokane had managed win #1 and now were looking to get the sweep of the weekend, and the season series from the Cougars. Eric Williams would get the start in net, hoping to duplicate Hughson's performance from the night before. The Chiefs offense meantime was trying to keep the momentum from the third period from the previous night and carry that into the start of Saturday's contest. Spokane would do exactly that, as Mitch Holmberg sniped home his 58th goal of the year, and league leading 21st power play goal at 8:58 of the first period to make it 1-0 Chiefs. Spokane would capitalize on their next power play as well, as Marcus Messier scored his 10th of the year, from Holmberg and Reid Gow, at 16:57 to give the Chiefs a 2-0 lead after one.
Spokane didn't let off the gas in the second, as Holmberg would put home his second of the game and 59th of the year, from Mike Aviani and Keanu Yamamoto at 1:59 of the second to put the Chiefs up 3-0. Riley Whittingham would score from the slot from Hudson Elyniuk 4 minutes into the period to give Spokane a 4-0 advantage. Jason Fram would then score 2:10 later to put the Chiefs up 5-0 after two. Holmberg wouldn't wait long to see if he could score his 60th, as he snapped home his record tying 6th hat trick of the year from Aviani and Yamamoto 1:19 into the third to give Spokane a 6-0 lead.
Holmberg became the first Chief to score 60 since Valeri Bure set the franchise record with 68 in 1992-93. The 6 hat tricks tied Ray Whitney's record from 1990-91, and Holmberg now has 145 career goals, tying him with Jason Podollan for second, just one back of all time leader Pat Falloon. The 60 goals ties him with Falloon for the 5th most in a season in team history, and he joins Falloon, Terry Perkins, Whitney and Bure as the only Chiefs to ever score 60 in a year. Keep in mind the last player in the league to score 60 was back in 2000-01! It's an amazing accomplishment. Holmberg has now scored 113 points, tops in the WHL and ties Whitney for the 7th most in a season by a Chief.
Holmberg's 291 points ties him with Greg Leeb for 5th in franchise history, and Holmberg still had 4 regular season games left plus the post-season. It's just safe to say that the 20 year old is having a season and a career that will rank amongst the best Spokane Chiefs fans have ever seen.
As for the rest of the game, Aviani scored his 35th of the season, putting home his 19th power play goal of the year at 11:30 to make it 7-0. It capped a 4 point night for Aviani, who seems to be finding his scoring touch again at the right time of year. Markson Bechtold would cap the scoring with a highlight reel goal a minute later as Williams turned aside all 28 Cougar shots to post his 4th shutout of the season in a dominating 8-0 win. It marked the biggest winning margin of the season and the most goals scored in a game by the Chiefs this year. The 12 goals over the last 4 periods erased the 1 goal over 11 periods drought that had preceded the trip to PG as well.
Spokane now enters the final week of the season just two points back of Seattle for 4th in the West, but the lead over Everett is still just one point for 5th. The Chiefs have just 4 games left in the regular season and will face the Thunderbirds and Silvertips in their next two contests Tuesday in Seattle and Wednesday in Spokane. Spokane will finish the regular season with a home and home series with Tri City in Spokane Friday and in Kennewick on Saturday. How the Chiefs perform this week will determine whether they finish 4th, 5th of 6th in the West. It's going to be an exciting week for the Chiefs and for Holmberg, as it will be interesting to see how things turn out.
I'll have the call on Tuesday either on 1510 or 790 AM, depending on whether Gonzaga is playing in the WCC tournament championship game. If the Zags are in, the Chiefs are on 790. If not, the game is on 1510. I do know the pre-game will be at 6:30pm and the puck drop at 7:05pm from Seattle. Wednesday's game with Everett from the Arena will be on 1510 with the 6:30 pre-game and 7:05 puck drop. I will miss the weekend finale series as I will be attending a family funeral out of state, but Jay Stewart will have the call on Friday and Saturday's games with the Americans on 1510 with the pre-game and puck drops at the same times. It will be fun week to be at the Arena and we hope to see you at the rink!