SPOKANE, Wash. — When the season began, the Chiefs certainly had aspirations of contending at the top of the U.S. Division and fighting for a top 4 playoff spot in the Western Conference of the Western Hockey League. That is always the goal anyway, but then reality of the season hits and you truly find out where you stand amongst the other clubs in the league. Unfortunately for Spokane, the hopes of contending for the top of the division or conference has given way to the reality the Chiefs are fighting for their playoff lives midway through the season. Spokane has been hammered by injuries, particularly through the forward corps, which was considered the team's strength at the start of the year. The team has also made a number of roster moves and trades which has altered the makeup of the club and has left it looking to build some chemistry for the second half of the season.
This past week, the Chiefs had the unenviable position of falling into last place in the division and the conference after getting swept in a 2 game road series at Portland. Meantime, Tri City took two straight at home over first place Everett while Victoria won a home and home from Vancouver to move past Spokane in the standings. The Chiefs had a chance to move even or past the Americans and Royals as the club hosted Portland in back to back games at the Spokane Arena and then took on Everett in a road contest in the final game of the first half of the 2021-22 campaign. Spokane had been outscored 11-4 in the two losses to the Winterhawks in Portland the weekend before as the team's offensive struggles continued from over the past month. The Chiefs had also given up 7 goals in their last loss to Portland, the second highest total they had surrendered all season. Shoring up the defense had to be goal number one as Spokane started their three games in three nights Friday at the Arena.
Portland was coming off a come from behind overtime win over first place Everett Tuesday at home that moved them 13 points ahead of the Chiefs for third place in the division. In the two games in Portland, Spokane had led once, taking a 1-0 lead after one in the first game Friday. The Chiefs would get out to a 1-0 lead again in game one in Spokane Friday as Graham Sward scored his 5th of the year 7:46 in. Spokane would expand the margin at 11:12 as Carter Streek netted his 4th of the season to make it 2-0. Rookie defenseman Saige Weinstein got his first career assist on Streek's goal, starting a big night for Weinstein as he would turn in perhaps his best game of the season. Just 1:58 after Streek's goal, the team's leading goal scorer Luke Toporowski rifled home a one timer from the left wing for his 11th of the year to give the Chiefs a commanding 3-0 lead. Portland would come right back and score 1:09 after Toporowski's goal to cut the margin to 3-1 after the first.
Chiefs goalie Mason Beaupit would be the star of the show for Spokane as he would deny Portland on a breakaway late in the first to keep the Chiefs up 2. Over the second and third periods, Beaupit would turn away all 27 shots he would see as the Winterhawks out shot Spokane 27-4 over the final two periods. Portland would pull their goalie in the final 2 minutes but would never seriously threaten the Chiefs net. With the Hawks net empty, Chase Bertholet would get the puck with just over 30 seconds left and score his first goal as a Chief in his first home game in Spokane to secure the club's 4-1 victory. Despite being out shot 40-17, the Chiefs picked up their first win over Portland in four tries this season. The win pulled Spokane within a point of 4th place Tri City after the Americans lost in overtime at Victoria. The Chiefs remained 5 points back of Victoria for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and would look for their second straight win over Portland the next night at the Spokane Arena.
Saturday's game would see the two clubs battle to a scoreless tie in the first period as the Chiefs out shot Portland 7-6. The second period would see the Winterhawks score 30 seconds into the frame to take a 1-0 lead. Portland then scored a power play goal just over 4 minutes in to go up 2-0. Spokane then came back with a power play goal from rookie Copeland Fricker at 14:13 of the period to cut the margin in half at 2-1 heading into the third period. Portland would come out in the third and get back to back goals from James Stephan to put the game away at 4-1, and earn a split of the weekend two game series. Spokane was out shot 30-15 over the final two periods as Portland earned their 4th win in 5 meetings with the Chiefs this season. The team fell 3 points back of Tri City in the standings as well, as the Americans earned a win in Victoria, so the next day's meeting with Everett became even more important for the Chiefs.
Spokane had lost the first 6 games vs. Everett this year, but the Silvertips were missing 4 of their top forwards and their top 2 defensemen in Sunday's tilt. The Chiefs looked to be taking advantage of that, as Chase Bertholet scored his second goal in 3 games just over 16 minutes into the game to give Spokane an early 1-0 lead. Everett came right back though and scored 2 goals in the final 3 minutes of the period to take a 2-1 advantage into the second. The Chiefs got a power play opportunity early in the second and would cash in as Blake Swetlikoff scored his 5th of the year 2:47 in to even the game at two apiece. Everett then responded with 3 unanswered goals over the rest of the period to take a commanding 5-2 lead into the third. The Silvertips then scored 2 power play goals over 4 straight Spokane penalties in the third to put the game away 7-2 to secure their 7th straight win over the Chiefs this season.
The loss was damaging in the standings as well, as Tri City won in Vancouver to pull themselves even with Victoria for the final playoff spot in the West. Spokane is now 5 points behind both the Americans and Royals in the standings heading into the Christmas break. The Chiefs should get 3 to 4 players back off the injured list by the New Year, and a good thing, as Spokane is looking at a grueling 4 games in 5 nights stretch coming back from the holidays. The Chiefs will start in Seattle on Tuesday, December 28th before the Thunderbirds head to Spokane on Thursday, December 30th. Spokane then has a home and home with rival Tri City starting with the annual New Year's Eve game before hosting the Americans on New Year's Day at the Spokane Arena. I'll have the call on 103.5 FM the Game and 1510 AM KGA starting with the pre-game shows at 6:30 pm and the puck drops at 7:05 pm. Here's wishing all of you a Merry Christmas and we hope to see you at the rink after the holidays!