The Chiefs came into the final three weeks of the regular season on a down note after losing back to back home games to Tri City and Kelowna over the past weekend to remain 9 points back of Portland for the final playoff berth in the WHL's Western Conference. Spokane now had just 11 games left in the season and were running out of time to catch the Winterhawks. To make matters more difficult, the Chiefs headed out on a 4 game road trip to Everett, Victoria, and Seattle that promised to be every bit as tough as it looked on paper.
Everett was the #1 team in the U.S. Division and the conference, while Victoria had won 4 of their last 5 games. Seattle was perhaps the hottest team in the West in the second half of the season, so Spokane was going to be hard pressed to make up ground in the playoffs on this road swing. Throw in the fact the Chiefs were without starting goalie Dawson Weatherill, who didn't make the trip due to an injury, and had defenseman Jeff Faith also on the sidelines, Spokane was coming in shorthanded in a do or die trip.
First up were the division leading Everett Silvertips. Spokane had played well against the Tips this season, splitting the first 6 meetings this year, including a win in Everett in the team's last trip to the West side. The Chiefs got off to a lottt better start than their last outing against Kelowna on this night, as the club out shot Everett 14-7 in the first period and generated the only two power play chances in the first 20 minutes. Spokane would convert on their first opportunity as Jaret Anderson-Dolan scored on a back hander midway through the period to give the Chiefs a 1-0 lead after one. The Chiefs would extend the lead to 2-0 after two when Kailer Yamamoto scored his team leading 36th of the season late in the second off a give and go with Anderson-Dolan. Spokane then took advantage off a 5 on 3 power play chance early in the third when Hudson Elyniuk tipped in a Keanu Yamamoto shot just over a minute in to give the Chiefs a 3-0 cushion. Everett would break through on their own 5 on 3 advantage later in the third to spoil goalie Jayden Sittler's attempt at his first shutout of the season to draw within 3-1, but Riley Woods would score on an empty netter late to seal a 4-1 victory.
It was Spokane's first multi-goal win over Everett this season as the three previous victories had been by just one goal, with two of the wins in overtime and shootout. The Chiefs withstood a 22 shot barrage from the Silvertips in the third as the Spokane penalty kill finished 5 for 6 on the night. The bad news for Spokane came two fold after, as the team lost defenseman Nolan Reid to a hip injury in the third, and Portland also won in Vancouver as the Winterhawks maintained their 9 point lead over Spokane with just 10 games to play. After a day of practice in Everett Thursday, the team headed North to face the red hot Victoria Royals for two games over the weekend. The Royals, who knocked the Chiefs out of the playoffs last season in the opening round, had won 4 of their last 5, losing their only game in a shootout. With Spokane now down to 3 sixteen year old defensemen having to play due to the injuries to Faith and Reid, it was all hands on deck for a Chiefs team desperate for a sweep.
Things would start well for Spokane as Kailer Yamamoto made a great effort to find Jaret Anderson-Dolan while prone on the ice. Anderson-Dolan would one time the pass in the net for his 35th goal of the season less than 5 minutes into the game to make it 1-0 Spokane. Victoria would answer with a power play goal with less than 2 minutes left in the first though to tie the game at one after the opening 20 minutes. The Chiefs came right back out in the second and re-gained the lead as Ondrej Najman scored his 5th of the year just 1:51 into the period to give Spokane a 2-1 advantage. Ethan McIndoe then scored his 17th of the season on a rebound at 14:46 to put the Chiefs up 3-1. Victoria answered right back though with two power play goals from Dante Hannoun in the final 3.5 minutes, including the tying goal with only .2 seconds remaining to even the game at three after two periods.
Spokane would come out in the third period and out shoot the Royals 12-4, but a costly turnover at the Victoria blue line led to a 2 on 1 Royals rush the other way. Goalie Jayden Sittler stopped Matthew Phillips shot on the right wing, but the rebound would come off the low wall and find Phillips open on the left side and he would score the game winner with just over 6 minutes left to lift Victoria to a come from behind 4-3 win. It was a bitter loss for the Chiefs, as Portland won their game in overtime over Vancouver to take an 11 point lead for the final playoff spot with just 9 games left for Spokane. The Chiefs had no time to pout though, as they had to turn around the next night and try to salvage the final game of their 4 game season series with Victoria. A Royals win would clinch a playoff berth for Victoria and drive the Chiefs one step closer to elimination.
For the second straight night, the Chiefs would jump out to a 1-0 lead as Hayden Ostir scored at 12:48 of the first period. Once again though, the Chiefs would cough up a Victoria power play goal as Phillips scored with 57 seconds left in the period to tie the contest at one after the first. In the second, Spokane would get 4 straight power play chances and convert on their last two. Hudson Elyniuk's rebound off a 5 on 3 at 11:21 made it 2-1, and then his tip of a Ty Smith shot at 12:19 gave Spokane a 3-1 lead for the second straight game. Anddd for the second straight night, the Chiefs would cough it up in the same period. Loch Morrison's soft shot from the blue line was missed by Sittler 40 seconds after Elyniuk's second goal to lift Victoria right back in the game at 3-2. Regan Nagy's rebound goal on the power play after a blown defensive coverage got the Royals back even at 3 apiece as the two team's headed to the third.
Neither team scored in the final 20 as Spokane failed to score on two power play opportunities. In overtime, it was a closely contested first half of the five minute OT until the Chiefs missed another defensive assignment, and Matt Phillips got open net front to hammer in his second game winner in as many nights at 2:42 of the extra frame. Victoria has won two overtime games all year....and they have come on Phillips game winners against Spokane. The Royals ended up sweeping the season series from the Chiefs, but more importantly, with Portland's win over Vancouver, Spokane is now 12 points back of the Winterhawks for the final playoff spot with just 8 games remaining. Victoria's win clinched a playoff spot for the Royals, and Tri City also clinched on Saturday.
So where does this leave the Chiefs? On life support. The best scenario now for Spokane to catch Portland is to win their 8 remaining games, and hope Portland goes 2-5 in their last 7, with all those losses in regulation. That is just to tie Portland and force a one game playoff. The odds of that happening? You have a better chance of winning the power ball. Spokane had opportunity to get back in the race over the last 3 weeks, but losing 6 of their last 10, and 4 of 5, will not get you back in any kind of a playoff race. So while officially still alive, the Chiefs streak of 10 straight playoff seasons is about to end. Now the team has to focus on playing their young guys, like defenseman Luke Gallagher, who picked up his first WHL point with an assist in Saturday's loss. Getting the 16 and 17 year old's valuable ice time to build for next year should be the focus now. The club has a bright future ahead of it, and it's time to start putting the blocks together for next year and beyond.
Spokane will finish off their road trip in Seattle on Tuesday, before returning home to open a 4 game home stand on Wednesday against Everett. The Chiefs will host Portland on Friday and Prince George on Saturday in their next to last week of the season. I'll have the call on 790 KJRB for Tuesday's game from Seattle with the pre-game at 6:30pm and the puck drop at 7:05pm. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday's games will be on 1510 KGA with the pre-game and puck drops at the same times. The Chiefs have been just a .500 club at home this season, and let's hope they finish the year strong and give the fans something to look forward to next season. We hope to see you at the rink!