No matter how many times I've had to prepare for the playoffs...and this marks my 8th...you can never anticipate the intensity the post season brings. Everyone on the team, from management, to the coaches, to the players, get this focused and intense look on their faces. Even if you get a smile out of them, it's quickly replaced by 'that' look. It was no different for the Chiefs, as they headed into the WHL playoffs for the 6th straight season hoping to improve upon their Western Conference Finals appearance the year before.
This time around, the Chiefs are taking on a familiar rival in the Vancouver Giants. The two teams are facing each other in the playoffs for the third time in 5 seasons, with the two splitting the first two meetings. Spokane won in 6 on their way to the Memorial Cup in 2008, while Vancouver knocked off the Chiefs in 7 games in 2009, with the final 3 contests all going to overtime. This season the two teams were separated by just a mere point in the final regular season standings, as Vancouver earned home ice as a result of their 86 points, edging Spokane's 85.
As a result, the series opened last Friday in Vancouver. The Chiefs had lost their only game in Van during the regular season, falling 3-2 in a shootout back in the season's second week. I expected the opener to be tight defensively as the two teams got a feel for each other. The Chiefs would get the early advantage as they got 3 power play chances in the first, but much like they had in the last month of the regular season, Spokane struggled on the man advantage and came away empty on the scoreboard. It looked like the Chiefs would keep Vancouver off the board as well, but a face off win in the final 6 seconds in the Spokane zone led to a rebound goal by Austin Fyten and the Giants took a 1-0 lead with just 2.6 seconds left in the first.
It was a hugeee lift for the Giants and it would show in the first 3 1/2 minutes of the second period. Chiefs defenseman Tanner Mort fell down with the puck at the Giants blue line and Cain Franson skated the other way for a breakaway backhander that made it 2-0 Vancouver 1:44 into the period. Spokane's Mitch Holmberg then turned the puck over in the Chiefs zone and Marek Tvrdon wrapped around the net and beat Engel at 3:30 to put the Giants up 3-0. Vancouver then got a power play chance to extend the lead, but the Chiefs Blake Gal scored shorthanded down the left wing at 6:42 to put the Chiefs on the board at 3-1. The Giants would still take advantage of their power play though as Jordan Martinook tipped a shot at 7:23 to give Vancouver a 4-1 lead. Spokane's Steve Kuhn would score at 15:26 to get the Chiefs back within 4-2, but Martinook would score his second of the period just 1:08 later to stake Vancouver to a 5-2 lead after two. The Giants put up 18 shots in the second as they assumed full control of the game.
The Chiefs would show some life early in the third period though, as Jason Fram scored on the power play at 6:32 to make it 5-3 Vancouver. The Giants would go on the power play, but Spokane's Dominick Uher snapped one in from the right wing at 7:37 to score the Chiefs second shorthanded goal of the night and get within 5-4. You could just feel the momentum shifting the Chiefs way at that point of the contest, but Spokane could not get the equalizer and really put the pressure on the Giants. Franson would score on a wraparound at 16:12 to seemingly put the game away for Vancouver at 16:12 to make it 6-4 Giants. Spokane didn't quit though, as Mike Aviani scored on a rebound at 18:29 to get the Chiefs within 6-5. Spokane would pull Engel from net in the final minute, but Franson capped a hat trick with an empty net tally in the final 2 seconds to give the Giants a 7-5 win and a 1-0 series lead.
Spokane didn't get a lot of time to mope about the outcome, as the two teams were back at it the following night for game two. The Chiefs were hoping for a better start in this one, but unfortunately for Spokane, it was worse than the previous evening. Vancouver's Neil Manning scored on the Giants only power play of the first to put Van up 1-0 at 8:10. Just 2:10 later, Martinook would get his 3rd goal in 2 nights to give the Giants a 2-0 edge after the first. Spokane outshot the Giants in the first, but that was small consolation for the Chiefs.
The second period would be the most disappointing of the weekend. The Chiefs had their best offensive chances in the second, putting up 19 shots. Unfortunately, Vancouver goalie Adam Morrison would turn away every single chance to keep Spokane off the board. Even worse, the Chiefs would surrender three goals to the Giants as Vancouver ended the competitive phase of the game at 5-0 after two. Tvrdon scored 9:53 in to make it 3-0. Brendan Gallagher then banged home a rebound on the power play at 11:32 to put the Giants up 4-0. Tvrdon would cap the scoring with a shot from the right wing on a 4 on 4 at 16:29 to spell the end of the night for Engel, as backup Eric Williams took over in net.
The Chiefs showed signs of life starting in the third as Kuhn scored on the power play just 1:03 in to make it a 5-1 game. Mitch Holmberg then scored on a rebound on the man advantage at 3:05 to bring the Chiefs within 5-2. The Giants would answer with Manning's second power play goal of the game at 8:07 to go up 6-2. Holmberg scored his second of the night at 10:54 to cut the lead in half at 6-3, but Gallagher scored his second of the game at 14:40 to cap off a convincing 7-3 win for Vancouver and a 2-0 series lead as the teams headed south to Spokane for games 3 and 4.
Spokane generated 41 shots in game two, and went 2-6 on the power play, both encouraging signs heading into game 3. The Chiefs also made a change in goal as Williams got the start in net for game 3. Vancouver would come out and generate 13 shots in the first period, but Williams was sharp from the get go as he denied the Giants every opportunity. Spokane meantime did something they had not done the entire weekend in Vancouver, namely take a lead. Reid Gow would score just 3:48 in to make it 1-0 Spokane. Blake Gal then converted a Todd Fiddler pass at 16:57 to give the Chiefs a 2-0 lead heading into the second.
Spokane failed on 3 power play chances in the second and would see Vancouver cut the lead in half on Franson's 4th goal of the series at 3:48 as the Chiefs would hold a 2-1 lead heading into the third. Williams played well in the first two periods, denying a Franson breakaway that could have tied the game. In the third, Williams would come up big again as Martinook was awarded a penalty shot with less than 6 minutes to go in the period. Williams deflected Martinook's attempt up top and Spokane continued to hold a one goal lead.
That lead would become 2 when Corey Baldwin scored from the left point at 15:56 to put the Chiefs up 3-1. Gallagher scored for the second straight game as he beat Williams at 17:30 to bring the Giants within 3-2. Spokane battened down the hatches defensively from there as the Giants never got off a serious chance with the extra skater on in the final minute and the Chiefs took a 3-2 win to get back in the series at 2-1.
The game three victory would mean little if Spokane failed to hold home ice in game four. The Chiefs came out with a purpose in the first period of game four as they outshot the Giants 10-3. Spokane broke out on top as Darren Kramer converted a Mike Aviani pass at 8:26 to give the Chiefs a 1-0 lead after one. Spokane would extend the lead in the second when Liam Stewart scored off a face off at 9:33 to put the Chiefs ahead by 2 going into the third period.
Spokane generated the only two power plays of the game through 40 minutes as they outshot the Giants 18-10 through 2 periods. In the third, Vancouver started taking over the game offensively, keeping the Chiefs pinned down in their own zone. Austin Fyten would score for Van off a face off at 9:21 to get the Giants back in the game at 2-1. Spokane kept the Giants at bay until the final minute of the third. With Morrison on the bench and the extra skater on, Gallagher would take a pass on the left side and rifle a shot past Williams with just 31 seconds left to tie the game at two and send the game to overtime.
After outshooting the Chiefs 12-7 in the third, you had to figure the Giants would have the momentum heading to overtime. It was Spokane that came out and controlled play in the OT though, as the Chiefs put up 3 of the first 4 shots. It was the third shot by Mitch Holmberg that would end the Giants comeback hopes though, as Holmberg's shot from the slot beat Morrison at 6:43 of overtime to give the Chiefs a huge 3-2 win. The series was now tied at 2-2, and now made it a best of 3 as the two teams head back north to Vancouver for game 5.
Game 5 is a huge one, but as was proven in 2009, the winner isn't guaranteed a series victory. The Chiefs went 4 overtimes that year to take a 3-2 series lead, only to lose in overtimes in games 6 and 7 to lose the series. Vancouver had the home ice that year as well, and that game 7 advantage proved to be the difference. After the disasterous weekend in games 1 and 2, the Chiefs did what they had to do and held home ice to even the series. Spokane will now hope that the momentum will carry them in game 5 and give them the chance to take a series advantage back to Spokane. It will be a huge task for a team that lost their leading scorer Brenden Kichton in game one as he took a puck to his face in period 3 and suffered a broken jaw. It's a huge loss for the Chiefs in the long term, as they lose their leading scorer, penalty killer and power play quarterback in Kichton. Spokane played well in games 2 through 4 however, so it's hoped that will continue the rest of the series.
The Chiefs are at least guaranteed 2 more games against the Giants, beginning with game 5 Friday night in Vancouver. Game 6 will be Sunday night at the Spokane Arena. I'll have the call on 1510AM KGA beginning with the pre-game show at 7pm Friday and the puck drop at 7:30pm from Vancouver's PNE Coliseum. Sunday night the pre-game is at 5:30pm with the puck dropping at 6:05pm. It's crunch time in the playoffs, and it will make for great hockey. Come out and support the boys on Sunday and we'll see you at the rink!