The Chiefs entered the final week of the regular season still having a shot at home ice advantage in their first round playoff series with Portland as they trailed the Winterhawks by 3 points with 4 games left in the season. Spokane was also playing their best hockey of the season, and would have to continue to do so to have any chance to catch Portland in the standings. Realistically, the Chiefs would have to win all 4 of their games this week, and hope Portland lost one of their 3 contests in regulation to overtake the Hawks for second in the division. The week for Spokane was going to be a challenging one as well, as the team would play three games on the road at Kamloops, Kelowna and Tri City before finishing up at home against the rival Americans.
First up was a Tuesday tilt in Kamloops against a Blazers squad desperately trying to get into the playoffs. Spokane had won 2 of 3 from Kamloops earlier in the season, but had suffered one of only shutout losses in the team's last meeting in Kamloops in late January when the Blazers won 3-0. Kamloops was without their starting goalie Dylan Ferguson, who pitched that earlier shutout, as he was out with an injury. Spokane started in a 2-0 deficit in that last game, as Tuesday's game unfolded, it felt like, as Yogi Berra put it, "Deja Vu all over again." The Blazers once again jumped out to a 2 goal lead after the first as Kamloops scored twice in just 1:26. Spokane was out shot 20-7 in the first, and was outplayed in every way, shape, and form in the period.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the second didn't start any better as Kamloops scored less than 5 minutes in to go up 3-0. Spokane didn't get their first power play of the game until midway through the second and they made the most of it, as Jaret Anderson-Dolan scored 5 seconds into the man advantage to get the Chiefs within 3-1. The goal marked the 8th straight game he had scored a goal, the second longest streak in the WHL this season. Spokane appeared to be heading to the third down 2 when the Blazers broke out of their own zone, and got behind the Chiefs defense to score with only 7 seconds remaining in the period to take a 4-1 lead after two.
That goal broke the Chiefs backs, and Spokane mustered little resistance in the third as Kamloops scored with just over a minute left to cap off a dominating 5-1 victory. Spokane was out shot 51-28, the largest deficit the team has had this season. The loss was doubly harmful as Portland beat Everett 4-1 to go ahead 5 points with just 3 games left in the season. It pretty much sealed up home ice for the Winterhawks in their first round playoff series with the Chiefs, which proved to be the difference in last year's meeting. Spokane didn't have a lot of time to feel sorry for themselves though, as they had to turn around the next night and face a Kelowna club that saw their lead over Kamloops for the final playoff spot in the B.C. Division cut to just two points with the Blazer win over Spokane.
The Chiefs had won the last time they were in Kelowna by a 5-4 margin, but the last time the two teams played, Spokane fell short in a shootout at the Spokane Arena to the Rockets. There was no doubt Spokane was going to run into another desperate hockey team as the two squared off on Wednesday. The club came out with a lotttt more life as well, as Jack Finley, a Kelowna native, scored just 12 seconds into the game to put the Chiefs ahead 1-0. The goal was just 1 second slower than the franchise record scored for fastest goal set in 2002. The Chiefs didn't enjoy the lead for long though, as Kelowna's Nolan Foote evened the score 3.5 minutes later. Spokane would re-gain the lead when Jaret Anderson-Dolan scored a goal in his 9th straight game at 8:39 to make it 2-1. The 9 game goal scoring streak tied a team record held by 4 other Chiefs with Adam Helewka the latest to accomplish it back in the 2015 season. Spokane would cap off a three goal first when Luke Toporowski scored his 3rd goal in 2 games in Kelowna this year in the final 3 minutes to give the Chiefs a 3-1 lead after one.
Spokane would build a 4-1 advantage after two when Ethan McIndoe tipped in his 15th of the year 3:11 into the stanza. Kelowna would cut the lead in half at 4-2 less than 2 minutes into the third, but Nolan Reid scored his 16th of the year midway through the period to put the Chiefs back ahead 5-2. The Rockets Foote would score his second of the night less than a minute later to make it 5-3. It appeared Spokane would be able to hold that lead late, but the Rockets pulled their goalie in the final 3 minutes and scored twice to tie the game at five and sent the contest to overtime. It marked the second time in three weeks the Chiefs had coughed up a multi-goal lead in the last minutes of a game; not exactly the kind of trend you want approaching the playoffs. Fortunately for the team, like they had in Tri Cities, the Chiefs were able to overcome the letdown of the third period collapse and rebound in overtime. Eli Zummack got the puck on a 2 on 1 rush and found Anderson-Dolan for his second of the night, and 3rd overtime game winner in March, to give Spokane a much needed 6-5 victory.
The win brought the Chiefs back within 3 points of second place Portland with 2 games left in the season. The only chance Spokane had of catching the Winterhawks for home ice was to beat Tri City in both games of a home and home series and have Portland lose both games to Seattle in regulation. The Chiefs first had to win their games with the rival Americans, which was going to be a huge task. Spokane had lost 6 of 10 to Tri City this year, so a weekend sweep would enable the Chiefs to tie the Ams in the season series. The teams met in Kennewick on Friday, where Spokane had lost 4 of 5, but had taken an overtime win their last time in Tri Cities two weeks ago. The Chiefs rested their three leading scorers Riley Woods, Ty Smith and Eli Zummack, as well as the red hot Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who had put up 11 goals over a 9 game goal scoring streak. Tri City went with a full lineup in their home finale, so it looked like it was going to be a tough contest for Spokane to pull out.
The Chiefs came out in the first and scored on a 5 on 3 power play after the Americans took back to back penalties to start the game. Jake McGrew scored his 4th goal against the Ams this season with a power play tally 1:30 into the game to make it 1-0 Spokane. Tri City answered back with a goal about 4 minutes later to even the game at one, and then took the lead on just their 3rd shot of the game midway through the period to take a 2-1 lead. Spokane scrapped back though as McGrew scored his second of the evening with just 44 seconds left in the first to make it a 2-2 game after one. The Chiefs notched the only goal of the second as Luke Toporowski scored in his second straight game midway through to give Spokane a 3-2 advantage after 40 minutes.
Tri City converted a power play chance 2:35 into the third to pull back even at 3-3 and it appeared the two clubs would be headed to overtime for the second straight game in Kennewick. The Chiefs got the puck in the offensive zone in the final 2 minutes and Filip Kral wristed home what turned out to be the game winner with 1:48 left to give Spokane a 4-3 lead. McGrew would cap his 3rd hat trick of his career with an empty netter with 56 seconds left to wrap up a 5-3 Chiefs win and pull Spokane within 1 point of Portland for the home ice spot in the first round of the playoffs. Now Spokane looked to wrap up the season with a win at home against the Americans on Saturday and put the pressure on Portland to win at least one of the two games they had with Seattle over the weekend.
The Chiefs wore special St. Patrick's Day jerseys for their home finale, and the luck of the green took hold early. Just 1:55 into the game, rookie Bear Hughes, playing in just his second game, scored his first WHL goal to put Spokane up 1-0. Spokane then had a chance to extend the lead on the power play, but the Americans Nolan Yaremko scored short handed to pull Tri City back even at 1-1. Just over a minute later on the same man advantage, the Chiefs Nolan Reid, in his final regular season game for Spokane, scored his career high 17th goal of the year to put the Chiefs back ahead 2-1. Ethan McIndoe would tip in a Jaret Anderson-Dolan shot with 1:15 remaining in the period to give Spokane a 3-1 lead after one in a period the Chiefs out shot the Americans 23-7.
The second period would prove to be Spokane's best offensive 20 minutes of the season. Adam Beckman became the first rookie to score 30 goals in a season since the '96-97 campaign when he scored 2:15 into the period. Luc Smith then scored a power play goal in his final regular season game at 3:51 to make it 5-1 Chiefs. Beckman then netted his second of the contest at 5:29 to push the lead to 6-1. Hughes then scored his second of the night at 6:01 to extend the margin to 7-1, and Cordel Larson scored his 7th of the year at the 7 minute mark to blow the game open at 8-1. 5 goals in just over 4.5 minutes put the game away, but the Chiefs put up a season high 6th goal in a period as Jake McGrew scored a power play tally, and his 4th in 2 games to make it 9-1 after two. Beckman would cap a season high 10th goal of the game with his first hat trick 12 minutes into the third as the Chiefs wrapped up a 10-1 victory. The win was the 4th in a row over Tri City as the Chiefs, after losing 6 of the first 8 in the season series, managed to split the 12 game set 6-6. Spokane dominated in every phase and were perfect on special teams, going 3-3 on the power play and 1-1 on the penalty kill as they out shot Tri City 47-20.
Spokane finished the season with 40 wins and with 87 points, finished just one point off their record from last season. The Chiefs moved 1 point ahead of Portland for second in the division after the Winterhawks lost to Seattle Saturday night. The Hawks wrapped up their season on Sunday at home against the Thunderbirds knowing that a win would push them back ahead of the Chiefs and give Portland home ice advantage in their first round playoff series. After jumping out to an early lead though, Portland gave up 2 goals in a tie game in the third and dropped their second straight to Seattle 6-5. With the loss, Spokane kept second place in the division and with it, home ice advantage. Last year's series came down to a game 7 in Portland, and the Winterhawks used a 2 goal third to end the Chiefs season 3-1. There's no question in my mind, home ice certainly helped Portland in that game, and certainly down the stretch in a tight game.
These two clubs are the highest scoring in the Western Conference, and the season series didn't lack in scoring between the two. Both teams went 2-1 on home ice, with Spokane suffering one of the two losses in Portland in a shootout. The Chiefs won their final match up in the series in Portland on March 1st by a 5-2 score to finish the season 3-3 against the Winterhawks. Spokane has stepped up their defensive play over the last month, a huge reason the club was able to surge past Portland in the standings. Besides the shootout loss, in which Spokane lost 6-5, the Chiefs other two defeats came by scores of 8-6 and 8-2. There's no question when the Chiefs failed to pay defense first against the Hawks, it played into Portland's favor. Spokane's wins came by scores of 4-1, 7-2 and 5-2. The lesson is easy. Defense wins. That aspect will be first and foremost for the Chiefs if they hope to avenge last season's series loss.
The two teams will meet in game one at the Spokane Arena on Friday night, with game two on Saturday. The series will then return to Portland for games 3 & 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday. I'll have the call on 1510 AM KGA and 103.5 FM the Game beginning with the pre-game shows at 6:30 pm and the puck drops at 7:05 pm. This should be the best series of the first round in the WHL playoffs and it's a shame that one of the top 4 teams in the conference will be knocked out in round one. That subject is for another time. In the meantime, gear up for playoff hockey for it is truly the best time of the year. We hope to see you at the rink!