This year's series with Vancouver and Spokane was eerily beginning to look an awful like the previous two between the teams in 2008 and 2009, as the two clubs split the first four games in those series. The Chiefs and Giants did the same here this year, as each team holding home ice through game 4. Spokane had barely done so, as Mitch Holmberg's dramatic game winner in overtime in game 4 gave the Chiefs a 3-2 win as the two teams headed back north to Vancouver for game 5.
In the previous two series, game 5 had also been played at the PNE Coliseum and in both cases, Spokane had won each time. David Rutherford led the way in 2008 with a pair of goals, while Blake Gal ended the second longest game in WHL history with a goal in the 4th overtime in 2009. The Chiefs were able to close out the series in game 6 in 2008 on their way to the Memorial Cup. In 2009, the Giants came away with a double overtime win in game 6 in Spokane to send the series back to Vancouver for game 7, where the Giants won in OT 1-0 to take the series. I remember both series vividly and the one thing that stood out was how close the teams were matched.
I had that feeling again in this year's series as the Chiefs made the long trip to Vancouver for game 5. The one thing the Chiefs didn't do in their first two games in Van was get off to a good start. In fact, the team that had scored first in the previous four games had gone on to win without ever giving up the lead. So it was a good sign when Spokane struck first at 7:20 of the first period when Liam Stewart scored on a rebound of his own shot on a net front scramble. The lead had been made possible after Chiefs goalie Eric Williams had denied the Giants on 3 shots in the opening minutes of play, all from point blank range. Spokane would hold that 1-0 lead after one despite being outshot 11-8 in the first.
The Chiefs came out firing in the second period when Darren Kramer converted a greatttt pass from Mike Aviani just 1:09 into the period to make it 2-0 Spokane. It was the perfect start for the Chiefs, as they took the crowd temporarily out of the game. The crowd found their way back into it late in the period though, when Brendan Gallagher scored on the power play at 15:06 to bring the Giants within 2-1 after two periods. As the teams hit the dressing rooms, all I could think about was how the possibility of hitting another overtime thriller was becoming a distinct possibility.
Spokane had other ideas though. In probably their best period of the series, the Chiefs took over the period early, and never let Vancouver back in the game. Mitch Holmberg would start things for the Chiefs at 4:47 as he scored on a rebound after a rush up ice by Aviani and Kramer. The air went out of the building after that goal put the Chiefs up 3-1. Holmberg would strike again on the power play at 9:14 when he scored on a backhander of his own shot to give Spokane a 4-1 lead. The Chiefs then put the final nail in the Giants coffin just 23 seconds later when Tanner Mort's shot from the point was tipped by Blake Gal into the net to make it 5-1 Chiefs.
Williams and the defense did the rest, limiting Vancouver to just 6 shots in the third, and Williams turned aside every single one of them as the Chiefs seized control of the series with their third straight win to take a 3-2 series lead. Amazing how fast things can turn around in a week, as Spokane was just down 2-0 and having to move forward without their player of the year, the WHL's leading scoring defenseman Brenden Kichton, who was lost for the year with a broken jaw suffered in game one. At the end of game 5, Vancouver's Cain Franson took a run at the Chiefs Dylan Walchuk, prompting Chiefs Captain Darren Kramer to charge out of the penalty box to defend his teammate. Unfortunately, Kramer did so just before the final horn, earning him a one game suspension from the WHL for game 6 back at the Spokane Arena.
So the Chiefs were now without their captain as they headed into game 6. With the winning team scoring first now in 5 straight games, the start of game 6 was an ominous one for Spokane. Vancouver's Cain Franson scored from the right circle on the Giants first shot of the game just 1:40 into the contest to put Vancouver up 1-0. The Chiefs then failed on two straight power plays. In fact, Spokane didn't get a shot on net on either chance. The Chiefs stuck with it though, and finally broke through late in the first. After the Chiefs missed on a pass in the offensive zone, Williams sent the puck up ice to an open Todd Fiddler in the neutral zone. Fiddler then hit a streaking Mike Aviani and Aviani did the rest, putting a backhander by Giants goalie Adam Morrison to tie the game at one.
It was a hugeee lift for Spokane as they headed to the intermission even. Spokane turned up the heat offensively in the second period, but had nothing to show for 16 shots on Morrison as it looked like the game would head to the third still tied at one. The Chiefs though got one final rush up ice. Aviani hit Dominick Uher up the left wing, and Uher left a drop pass to Corey Baldwin who joined the rush. Baldwin's slap shot from the point hit off Morrison and into the net with just 3 seconds left to give the Chiefs a 2-1 lead and send the Arena crowd into a frenzy.
The goal had to be back breaking for Vancouver as all the momentum of the game was squarely with Spokane. It also marked the first time that a team had surrendered a lead in the series. Now it was up to the Chiefs to hold it. Spokane did more than that though, as Aviani would pick up his second assist and third point of the night with a face off win that Mitch Holmberg snapped under the crossbar at 6:26 of the third to give the Chiefs a 3-1 lead. It was another huge goal by Holmberg, his team leading 6th of the series, as it gave Spokane a multi goal lead going into the late third period.
The Giants would pull Morrison from net in the last 2 minutes and would get a 6 on 4 advantage when the Chiefs took a too many men on the ice minor penalty. Spokane's penalty kill though would more than kill it off, keeping the puck pinned in the Vancouver end and just missing on 4 quality chances to score shorthanded. It was no matter though, as the Chiefs closed out the series with a 3-1 win to move on to the Western Conference semi-finals for the second straight year.
Once again the Chiefs will take on their arch rivals, the Tri City Americans in the West semi's. Last year, Levko Koper's game winner in overtime lifted Spokane to the West final with Portland. Spokane enjoyed home ice last season, but this year the Ams will have the home ice as the top seed in the Western Conference after edging Portland for the U.S. Division title. Tri City took 8 of 12 from the Chiefs in the regular season, as Spokane went 2-4 both at home and on the road. The Chiefs did beat Tri City in the final game of the regular season on St. Patrick's Day, so that win should give Spokane some confidence against the Ams as the series begins Friday in Kennewick.
I'll have the call of the whole series on 1510 KGA. Every game of the series will begin at 7:05pm with the pre-game shows at 6:30pm, so that will be easy for all of us to remember! Game one is Friday night, with game 2 in Kennewick the following night on Saturday. Spokane will host game 3 Wednesday, April 11, and then game 4 on Friday, April 13 before the teams turn right around and head back to the Tri Cities for game 5 on Saturday the 14th. It should be another barn burner between two old and bitter rivals and I'm looking forward to another well played series. We hope you make it out to the Arena as well and hope to see you at the rink!