SPOKANE, Wash. -- The Christmas break always signals the halfway point of the season for the Chiefs...even if they haven't played half of their games. That is indeed the case this year, as Spokane has played just 34 of their 72 game schedule in the first part of the 2017-18 campaign thus far. If the first half of the schedule has shown us anything, it's the Chiefs can play, and beat any team in the Western Hockey League when they play their game.
That means getting solid goaltending, getting a good forecheck and tight checking defensively, taking care of the puck out of their zone and generating speed through the neutral zone, and getting the puck deep in the offensive zone and controlling puck possession down low to generate shots on net.
When Spokane has done those things, they beaten some of the top teams in the league in Moose Jaw, Portland, Tri City and Victoria. When they haven't, they've paid the price.
After the first half, Spokane has a record of 18-13-1-2, good for 39 points and a tie with Tri City for third in the U.S. Division and trailing first place Everett by 5 points and second place Portland by four. After missing their leading scorer from last season, Kailer Yamamoto for over half of the first half while he was with the NHL's Edmonton Oilers, the club has to be happy where they are sitting.
A quick run of 5 or 6 wins in a row and the club will be challenging for the top spot in the division as well as the Western Conference. After winning 4 of their first 5 contests, the Chiefs ran into the buzz saw known as the Portland Winterhawks and dropped three straight to drop from the top of the division.
Spokane then won 4 of 6 after that, only to lose 4 in a row to head right back down to .500 ville. The roller coaster continued with the Chiefs winning 7 of 10, before wrapping up the first half by splitting their last 6 games.
The team certainly saw some real development from its' youngsters, as well as some of the veteran corp during the first half. You're only as good as your goaltending, and the Chiefs have to be pretty happy with what they've had in the first half.
Dawson Weatherill started the year as the starter, and got off to a strong start as he was ranked in the top 10 in goals against the first two weeks of the season. Much like the team though, Weatherill had his ups and downs from there before missing the last 3 weeks of the first half after having to be hospitalized with illness. Back up Donovan Buskey came in and stepped up for the Chiefs, going 7-5 in the first half, and picking up his first career shutout as well.
Defensively, the team was aided by the addition of Czech import Filip Kral, who has stabilized the D corp with his puck moving skills and ablility to get the puck up ice. Adding him with Nolan Reid, who's had a terrific first half on both ends of the ice, gives the Chiefs a top notch second blue line pairing to go with top unit Ty Smith and Tyson Helgesen. Smith has been off the chart good this first half, and will be a cinch to be a high first round pick in the draft come next summer. Helgesen has been rock solid as usual and he and Smith are easily one of the top defensive pairs in the league. Dalton Hamaliuk has learned to simplify his game and become a reliable defender, while youngsters Matt Leduc and Luke Gallagher are improving weekly to give Spokane three good pairings every game.
Up front, the team improved immediately with the trade for Zach Fischer from Medicine Hat for Hayden Ostir. Fischer has been a leader up front, and he has helped make Hudson Elynuik a better player. Elynuik leads the club in goals, points, plus/minus and game winning goals and is second in assists. He and Fischer have teamed with Riley Woods to give the Chiefs a legitimate top line. With Yamamoto back, the team has been trying to find the best combo to use him. There were signs that Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Ethan McIndoe would prove to be the pairing with Yamamoto, and it may still be the case, but there weren't enough signs of consistency with those three to sign off on them being a long term line. I was impressed with Eli Zummack's line with Luke Toporowski and Jake McGrew for the most part, but as is the usual with young players, consistency night in and night out proved to be an issue at time. I do like their energy though, and if they can bring that nightly and skate like they're capable, they are going to be a very difficult third line to defend. They will be a key going forward as far as Spokane's second half success is concerned. The fourth line with Riley McKay, Milos Fafrak and Jeff Faith will be key as well. When those three skate, check hard, and give the energy they're capable, they will be a line no one wants to face. I'm excited to see what the third and fourth lines can provide going forward. Rookies Cedric Chenier and Carter Chorney have given quality minutes, and I'm particularly intrigued with Chenier's on ice intelligence. He makes a lot of good plays for a rookie and as his speed gets better, I think he can be a real positive this season.
There's real reason for optimism with this club, and I'm excited to see what this team develops this year. There's a lot of question marks too, such as will Weatherill, when he comes back, prove to be a reliable #1 goalie that can play games as well as Everett's Carter Hart and Portland's Cole Kehler? There's going to be games where he will have to be as good as the top two goalies in the league...and they just happen to be in the Chiefs division. Defensively, Spokane must show they can shut down some of the top lines in the West, such as the top lines in Portland, Tri City, Victoria and Kelowna, all of whom are some of the top in the WHL. Offensively, the team will be without Yamamoto for the first two weeks as he plays for Team USA in the World Junior Tournament. Spokane will also be without Kral while he plays for the Czech Republic team. Spokane will miss both of them, so role guys used to third and fourth line minutes will have to step up.
The West is going to be toughhh this year, and the fact is, the top team in the regular season could be knocked out by the second round this playoff season. The biggest hurdle Spokane faces is itself. This team needs to beeelieveee they are good enough to win. Right now, they think they are, but the only thing separating them from Portland or Tri City or Kelowna, is the belief they are the best out there. The losing the team has endured over the past 3 years, and missing the playoffs last year, are tough to overcome mentally against teams that have had success like the three previously mentioned. I honestly believe that if the Chiefs know they are good, they will be. Easier said than done, but the leadership in the room must get themselves and the youngsters to come out everyyy game and prove they belong.
We will see if that proves to be the case. The second half starts with a tough 4 games in 5 nights stretch through the division as the Chiefs play home and home series with Seattle and Tri City. Seattle drilledddd the Chiefs 10-3 in Spokane's final game of the first half at the Spokane Arena, so the team has some payback to deliver coming out of the gate when the Chiefs host the Thunderbirds Wednesday at 7:05 pm. The club will then battle the Winter weather when they head over the pass Friday to take on Seattle in the back half of the home and home at 7:35 pm. Saturday, Spokane heads home to host Tri City at 7:05 pm before going down to Kennewick to face the Americans in the annual New Year's Eve tilt on Sunday at 7:05 pm.
I'll have the call on 1510 KGA for the games on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, while Saturday's will be on 94.1 FM the Bear. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, I'll be on the air with the pre-game at 6:30 pm, while Friday's game from Seattle will be a 7 pm pre-game. Let's hope the team comes out and shows what they're capable of from the get go this week, and we hope to see you at the rink!