SPOKANE, Wash. — Only two teams had ever overcome an 3-0 deficit in a Western Hockey League playoff series and while the Chiefs were an extreme long shot to become the third, that was their goal as they headed home to the Spokane Arena for game 4 of their first round playoff series with the Kamloops Blazers.
The 7th seeded Chiefs were a huge underdog coming into the series with the 2nd seeded Blazers and Kamloops showed why with 3 convincing victories on their home ice over a 4 day period.
The Blazers had taken game one 9-0, followed it up with a 6-2 victory in game two the next night and then put away Spokane with a 5-1 win two nights later. The Chiefs were hanging on life support coming into game four, but the club was hoping being back on home ice would get the club back in the win column.
Friday's game 4 came with the disappointing news that starting goalie Mason Beaupit would still be down with a knee injury suffered in game 2 in Kamloops. The club did get defenseman Graham Sward back on the ice though, after he missed game 3 due to a last minute illness the day of the game. The Chiefs turned back to 16 year old goalie Cooper Michaluk after he made his first playoff start in relief of Beaupit in game 3. Michaluk would be tested early as the Blazers got the only two power plays of the first period and would outshoot the Chiefs 16-6 in the opening 20 minutes. Michaluk would turn aside 15 of those attempts, with Logan Stankoven giving the Blazers the first goal of the game with a power play tally 3:12 into the game.
Spokane would come out in the second and get a couple of odd man rushes into the Blazer end, but the closest the Chiefs would come to scoring would be a Reed Jacobson shot that rang off the post that would have tied the game at one. Michaluk would once again turn aside 15 Blazer shots but once again Stankoven would find the net as he scored on a rebound at 18:17 to put Kamloops up 2-0 heading into the third. Spokane was outshot 32-11 through 2 periods, but Michaluk had kept the Chiefs in the game as the club hoped to get the offense going in the final period.
Stankoven would have other ideas as he would beat the Chiefs defense at the blue line and walk in and score on a partial breakaway 5:59 into the final frame to put Kamloops in control at 3-0. Spokane's offense would outshoot the Blazers 9-8 in the third but the Chiefs had to kill off 4 Kamloops power plays in the period, which limited the club's ability to generate more offense. The Chiefs had a couple of power plays but the first one was just 12 seconds as Spokane committed back to back penalties to negate that opportunity. Spokane would then cut their second chance short less than a minute in with yet another penalty. The Blazers goalie Dylan Garand would turn aside all 20 Spokane shots on his way to his second shutout of the series as Kamloops would advance to the West semi's with a 3-0 victory.
The loss brought an end to a Chiefs season that started in disappointing fashion, saw the club struggle to the bottom of the Western Conferennce in late January that would result in Head Coach Adam Maglio being let go. Assistant Ryan Smith would take over and the club would respond, playing just a game under .500 over the final two months to finish 7th in the West and make the post season. It was a great recovery to what could have potentially turned into the worst season in franchise history. Spokane was able to recover and start to build a future that indeed looks bright heading into next year and beyond.
Friday's game 4 brought an end to the careers of 20 year olds Bear Hughes and Nick McCarry. Hughes, who grew up watching the Chiefs growing up in Post Falls, would finish as the Chiefs leading scorer this season with 67 points. McCarry who was acquired from Kamloops at the trade deadline, was the club's second leading scorer with 63. Filling those holes in offensive production and leadership will be a major goal for the team heading into next year. The club also had five 19 year olds this season in forwards Reed Jacobson, Erik Atchison, and Cade Hayes and defensemen Mac Gross and Raegan Wiles. Spokane can only keep three of them next season, so at least two of those players have played their last games as Chiefs as well. The team has a number of upcoming 16 year olds that should be able to make the team next season, so Spokane may only keep two 20 year olds like they did this season.
The forward group next year will be led by Chase Bertholet, who was acquired from Winnipeg in the Jack Finley trade in December. Bertholet tied for the team lead with Hughes in goal scoring with 24, and was third in scoring with 58 points. Number one overall pick Berkly Catton represented his team well in his 15 year old season and played second line minutes in his first playoff series. Catton and Bertholet together the next 2 seasons is reason enough to be excited for the future of the Chiefs. Besides Bertholet, returning 19 year olds include forwards Blake Swetlikoff, Ty Cheveldayoff, Grady Lane, and import Yannick Proske. Defensemen Graham Sward and import Timafey Kovgoreniya are the two 19 year olds due to return. The new Chiefs general manager will have interesting decisions to make on whether to bring back both imports in Proske and Kovgoreniya, just one, or a new pair of imports for next season. The returning 19 year old group will have to take the next steps in their games for Spokane to improve in the standings in an extremely competitive U.S. Division next season.
The 18 year old group returns forwards Carter Streek and Michael Cicek, who both battled injuries in the latter part of the season. Defensemen Logan Cunningham and Brayden Crampton both saw plenty of playing time and should be ready to step up in their roles next year. The 17 year olds will include forwards Jake Gudelj and Kooper Gizowski and defenseman Saige Weinstein. Copper Michaluk, who was superb in net for the Chiefs in game 4, made a strong statement to become the backup to starter Mason Beaupit, who will be back in net as a 19 year old next season. Manny Panghli, who backed up Beaupit much of this season, will be hard pressed to keep his backup role if Michaluk proves to be just as good or better next year.
Much can change on the roster with trades heading into the year. This season, the Chiefs started with forwards Jack Finley, Luke Toporowski and Cordel Larson, all of whom were dealt by the trade deadline. Spokane will have a new general manager in place of Scott Carter, who stepped down due to health reasons. Whether Smith is back as head coach will be up to the new GM, but my personal hope is that the club retains Smith. He did a whale of a job taking over for Adam Maglio and led a last place club and took them within a tiebreaker of becoming the 6th place team in the West.
The exciting part for me is the draft picks from this year who wil probably make the club as 16 year olds next year. Catton will definitely be on the club and should be joined by fellow forward and second round pick Luka Shcherbyna. Defensemen Nathan Mayes and Will McIsaac, the teams 3rd and 4th round picks, also saw action this year and showed me enough that they should be part of the defensive rotation next season. It's going to be an interesting off season for the Chiefs, but there's no question this team is heading in the right direction with the playoff berth this year and the possibility of this young club even being younger next year is a real possibility. Young, but talented, which means a bright future for the Chiefs heading into the 2022-23 season and beyond. It's on to the off season and we'll see you at camp the end of August!