SPOKANE, Wash. — Panic and desperation are words in the sports world that never mean something is going well with your team. With 22 games left in the regular season, the Chiefs were not ready to use those terms to describe the state of the team, but there's no doubt Spokane was closer to bringing those words into the conversation after dropping a season high 5 straight entering this past week's play. The Chiefs offense, which includes the league's top power play, had just dried up over the past 2 weeks, as the club had scored just 4 goals in its' last 14.5 periods of action. Any way you stack it, the average was less than a goal a game...which means you'll be losing every game you play at that rate. The frustrating part of the losing streak wasn't just the offensive woes. The team was playing some of its' best defense of the season, and getting solid goaltending as well. During the streak, Spokane had given up 6, 1, 2, 3 and 3 goals in their defeats; an average of just over 2 goals per contest in the last 4 losses. Spokane would take those numbers most anytime, as they would mean a lot of wins for the club.
During the streak, Spokane had seen Portland double their lead over the Chiefs for second place in the U.S. Division, going from 6 points ahead to 12 points up over the previous week. Time is beginning to run out on the Chiefs to get a home ice spot in the first round, so Spokane knew they faced their biggest week of the season as they prepared to meet Portland twice and Kelowna once in their 3 games. First up were the second place Winterhawks, who had won 3 in a row and 8 of their last 10 entering Wednesday's game at the Spokane Arena. Portland had won 2 of 3 from Spokane in the season's first half, including an 8-2 thumping in Portland the beginning of December in the two squad's last meeting. Spokane had been outscored 16-8 in the last 2 match-up's with the Hawks, so the Chiefs had to find some answers on the defensive end of the ice against Portland, in addition to the offensive struggles the team had been suffering of late.
The Chiefs were still without Eli Zummack up front, as well as defenseman Matt Leduc, as both were out injured. The good news for Spokane was forward Cordel Larson was back in the lineup after missing the last week and a half. Spokane moved some forwards around in their lines on Wednesday, and the moves seemed to have a good effect on the club. Riley Woods, who had been in a bit of a slump over the past 3 weeks, broke himself out with a goal just over 5 minutes into the game to pull the Chiefs ahead 1-0. Spokane dominated the first period, out shooting the Winterhawks 16-7 in the first, yet Portland pulled themselves into a 1-1 tie at the end of one with a goal with just 2:10 left in the period. The goal seemed to be emblematic of the Chiefs struggles the past two weeks, as the club played well enough to lead, yet were still even after one. Instead of moping about their situation though, Spokane came out and played even better in the second. The Chiefs re-took the lead on a Luc Smith power play goal midway thorough the period to make it 2-1. The team got another power play chance late in the period and capitalized again as Jaret Anderson-Dolan sniped home his 5th of the year to make it 3-1 with just 1:15 left in the frame. Just when it looked like Spokane would take that two goal cushion to the third, an Anderson-Dolan shot was back handed by Smith into the Hawks net with just 13 seconds remaining to make it 4-1 Chiefs heading to the third.
Spokane didn't allow Portland to entertain any thought's of a comeback as Jake McGrew scored on a partial breakaway a little over 5 minutes into the third to put Chiefs up 5-1. Ethan McIndoe snapped his own scoring drought with his 10th of the year just over 2 minutes later to make it 6-1. The even better news for the team was rookie forward Connor Gabruch, who had gone 33 games without a point, broke into the points column with an assist on McIndoe's goal. Jack Finley then scored the Chiefs third power play goal of the night late in the third to cap the scoring for Spokane. Portland scored a goal in the last 2 minutes, but it didn't spoil the party for Spokane, as the team snapped their losing streak with a convincing 7-2 victory. The win pulled the Chiefs within 10 points of the Winterhawks in the division, and certainly did a ton for the confidence of the club moving into the weekend as Spokane was hosting Kelowna on Friday. It was the first meeting of the season for the two teams, as the Rockets became the last Western Conference club the Chiefs have seen this year.
Spokane got some good news as forward Eli Zummack returned to the lineup after being out for 2 weeks. It marked just the 2nd game this season that the Chiefs had their full lineup they expected in September. The other game was an 8-3 win over Tri City on January 12th, so I was curious to see how the club would respond with all hands on deck. Spokane started back up goalie Reece Klassen against Kelowna, and that turned out to be a wise decision. Right off the the opening face-off, Klassen was dialed in. He turned away a point blank shot from the Rockets leading scorer Kyle Topping just 10 seconds into the game to keep Kelowna from taking an early lead. Klassen would stop 3 huge scoring chances in the first, and the Chiefs responded for him. Jake McGrew's shot from the left circle through traffic at 8:02 gave Spokane a 1-0 lead after one. In the second, the Chiefs turned away 2 Rockets power plays and then extended the lead as Adam Beckman scored at 15:55 to give Spokane a 2-0 advantage after two.
The club then put the game away in the first 3:50 of the third as Nolan Reid and Beckman scored goals 1:56 apart to give Spokane an insurmountable 4-0 lead. Klassen and the defense made it stand up as the netminder notched his first career shutout with a 25 save effort. Zummack notched 2 assists in the third in his first game back, and the club kept pace with Portland for second in the division, trailing the Winterhawks by 10 points after Portland won as well Friday at home. Now the challenge for Spokane was to keep their play at a high level as they traveled to the Rose City for a re-match on Saturday. The end of Wednesday's game was chippy, and both clubs were going to be feisty with something to prove. Portland had also won by shutout with a win over Vancouver Friday, so the first goal was going to snap someone's shutout streak.
It was the Chiefs that would do the honors, as Nolan Reid's 10th of the season just 3:18 into the game gave Spokane a 1-0 lead. Portland answered right back to tie the game 1:14 later to make it 1-1. Spokane got a 5 minute power play midway through the first, but lost defenseman Ty Smith as he was taken into the boards head first by Portland's leading scorer Joachim Blichfeld. Blichfeld was given a game misconduct, so both clubs were down one of their best players. Spokane failed to score on the power play though, and Portland seized the momentum with a goal with just 45 seconds left in the period to take a 2-1 lead after one.
The Winterhawks scored just 20 seconds into the second to go up 3-1, but back to back goals from Egor Arbuzov and Reid midway through the period drew Spokane even at 3 apiece. Portland re-took the lead though when a power play goal in the final 4 minutes made it 4-3 Hawks after two. Portland went back up 2 at 5-3 on a goal just under 6 minutes into the third, but Spokane got back with 5-4 as Adam Beckman scored his 3rd goal in the last two games. A little over two minutes later, Filip Kral's shot from the point found net on the power play, and the Chiefs had tied the game at 5 apiece at 11:28 of the third. Neither team was able to score the rest of regulation, and despite great end to end action in the overtime, the game would go to a shootout for the first time between the two.
The Chiefs Jaret Anderson-Dolan scored in round 1 to make it 1-0 Spokane after the first. Portland's Reece Newkirk scored in round two to tie it at 1-1. Portland would score again in round 3 to go ahead 2-1, and when Riley Woods missed the net, Portland got the extra point with a 6-5 shootout victory. The loss pushed Spokane 11 points back of Portland for second in the division and a first round home ice playoff spot. With just 19 games left on the schedule, it's going to be practically impossible for the Chiefs to catch the Hawks, as Spokane is now faced with the reality of probably not having home ice in any playoff series. Now it's Spokane's turn to see how they rebound from a mentally tough loss as well as the uncertainty of when Ty Smith will return to the lineup.
The Chiefs will start the first week of February on the road as they visit Kelowna on Wednesday for the first time this season. Spokane will then return home to host Victoria on Friday and the Kootenay Ice for the final time on Saturday. Kootenay is moving to Winnipeg next season, so it will be the final time the fans from Cranbrook will come to Spokane to root for their team. It's sad to think that as the Ice have always had a great contingent of fans come down over the weekend for a Saturday meeting with the Chiefs. I'm sorry to see this tradition end after twenty years. I'll have the call for Wednesday's and Friday's games on 103.5 The Game, while Saturday's game will be on 94.1 the Bear due to Gonzaga basketball. The pre-game shows will be at 6:30 pm with the puck drops at 7:05 pm. Let's hope the Chiefs start a new winning streak and we hope to see you at the rink!