KAMLOOPS, BC — The 2021-22 Chiefs season has had the full gamut of emotions for the team and fans alike. What started out as a season of promise and hope, quickly turned to disappointment and frustration. There was a bottoming out in the standings, a mid-season coaching change and a turnaround in emotion and performance that would lead the club out of the cellar of the Western Conference standings and into a playoff berth in the post-season. As the Grateful Dead once sang, "What a long, strange trip it's been." Spokane did manage to cast itself out of the basement of the West in early February and finish strong enough to push themselves into the 7th seed in the 8 team playoffs with an end of the season 4-2 victory in Victoria. For their efforts, the team got the honor of taking on the 2nd seed, the B.C. Division champion Kamloops Blazers.
Kamloops finished the regular season 46 points ahead of the Chiefs in the standings, a 23-game edge in other sports standings. The Blazers had spent practically all season ranked in the CHL top 10 as one of the premier teams in all of Candian junior hockey. The two clubs completed one of the major trades at the trade deadline, when Spokane sent their leading goal scorer Luke Toporowski to the Blazers in exchange for Nick McCarry and a draft pick. Both teams benefitted from the deal, as McCarry finished second on the Chiefs in scoring, while Toporowski would be second on the Blazers. The two teams played three times during the regular season, with Kamloops winning the first two by a combined 13-2, but Spokane had won the latest meeting in Kamloops on April 1st by a not so April Fools like 6-5. It was one of only 7 times in 34 home games Kamloops had lost in regulation. The Chiefs were hoping to use that success from 3 weeks earlier to carry over into game one of their best of 7 first round series.
This was the first playoff series between the two since the 2001 season. In that series, Kamloops was the higher seed and the favorite, but Spokane pulled off a shocking 4 game sweep of the Blazers on their way to the Western Conference finals. The Blazers looked determined to not suffer that same fate in game one, as they came out flying off the opening face-off. Kamloops captain Logan Stankoven, a Dallas Stars prospect, scored just 44 seconds into the game to give the Blazers a quick 1-0 lead. Kamloops would then follow with two goals just 22 seconds apart midway through the period to go up 3-0 after twenty minutes. Spokane had 3 power play chances in the opening frame but came up with nothing as they were outshot 13-8 in the period.
Stankoven would strike again in the opening minute of the second, as he notched his second goal of the night with a power play tally 52 seconds in the period to put Kamloops up 4-0. Fraser Minten's goal from the high slot 3 minutes later would make it 5-0 Blazers and spell the end of the night for goalie Mason Beaupit, who was relieved by back up Cooper Mickaluk for the rest of the game. Spokane entered the third down 5-0 and things didn't get any better. Toporowski haunted his old teammates with a goal off a four on four 1:15 into the third to put the Blazers in control at 6-0. Toporowski then added a short handed tally 4 minutes later to turn the game into a rout at 7-0. Stankoven would notch the hat trick, and a 5 point night with his marker at 12:17 and the Blazers struck again at 13:05 to cap off the Chiefs worst shutout playoff loss in franchise history as Kamloops skated off with an easy 9-0 win in game one.
As the score would indicate, Spokane was outclassed in every facet of the game, the most glaring of which was compete level. Kamloops skated faster, hit harder, won far more puck battles and looked like a team ready to begin a playoff run. The Chiefs looked like an overwhelmed team just happy to be there. Kamloops out shot Spokane 44-25 in the game as the Blazers were 1-2 on the power play while Spokane was 0-4. If there was any good news for the Chiefs, and there wasn't a lot of it in game one, it was Spokane didn't have any time to feel sorry for themselves, as they had to get right back on the ice and try to even the series in game two the very next night.
The Chiefs came out and played significantly better in game two early as the two clubs traded chances in a scoreless and even first half of the opening period. Spokane would give the Blazers three power play chances in the first though, and Kamloops would capitalize on the second one as Luke Toporowski haunted his old team again with his third goal in two games at 17:11 of the period to give the Blazers a 1-0 lead after one. In the second period, the Chiefs would get three power play chances but would fail to score. Kamloops would get 4 opportunities on the man advantage, but Spokane would turn away all 4 chances. Spokane suffered a huge loss in the period though when starting goalie Mason Beaupit went down with a right leg injury midway through the frame. He suffered it making a sprawling save in the crease and initially was able to get back and skate on it. After trying to flex it doing a butterfly stretch, Beaupit had to come off the ice and would not return to the contest. Back up Cooper Michaluk, who had played in game one, came out and turned aside 12 of 13 shots in the period. The only goal came off an odd man rush after a Chiefs turnover at the Kamloops blue line and the Blazers would take a 2-0 lead after two.
The third period was truly a good, bad and the ugly stanza for the Chiefs. Spokane started the period on one of their 5 power plays in the third, but would cough up a short handed goal after yet another turnover at the blue line as Kamloops took off on a breakaway and took a 3-0 lead just 1.5 minutes into the period. The Blazers made it 4-0 on a tip net front at 8:25 and suddenly it looked like another rout was on in game two. Spokane would come right back though and score on their second power play chance of the period as Graham Sward scored from the point at 9:37 to give the Chiefs their first goal of the series at 4-1. Just 1:17 later, former Blazer Nick McCarry scored net front to cut Kamloops lead in half at 4-2. Just over two minutes later though, Spokane took 2 simultaneous penalties to put Kamloops on a 5 on 3 power play and Toporowski scored his 2nd of the game at 13:59 to extend the lead to 5-2. The Blazers then scored off a 4 on 4 just 48 seconds later and would put game two away 6-2 to take a two games to none lead over the Chiefs in the best of seven series.
Critical errors with the puck and undisciplined play killed Spokane in game two. Kamloops got 10 power play chances in the game, scoring on two of them and adding a shorthanded and 4 on 4 goal to boot. The Chiefs played the Blazers pretty straight up five on five, so Spokane could certainly build upon that heading into game 3. The bad news for the club though, was they would be without Mason Beaupit in goal, who was on crutches after his knee injury Saturday. The Chiefs went back to Michaluk to start in a pivotal game three for the club, as Spokane served as the home team in Monday's contest due to the Spokane Arena being tied up due to preparations for the Paul McCartney concert on Thursday.
Spokane was in a must win situation as heading home down 0-3 would be almost an impossible deficit to come back. Only twice in league history had a team rallied from down 3 games in a playoff series. The Chiefs were one of them, rallying to beat Portland in '96, but having to do so against a club as good as Kamloops would be unimaginable. Spokane didn't have good news heading in already with Beaupit unable to go in net, and then right before the game, top defenseman Graham Sward fell ill, leaving the club without their top 2 defenders. Not a good thing to have against a high octane Blazer group that had scored 15 goals in the first two games of the series. Former Chief Luke Toporowski and his linemate Logan Stankoven had led the way with a league high 4 goals for Toporowski and 7 points for Stankoven. Those two would waste little time getting going in game three as Stankoven found Toporowski net front and the Blazers scored just 2:55 into the contest to take a 1-0 lead.
The Chiefs would get three power plays in a row in the first, but would come up empty as Kamloops kept their one goal lead despite being outshot 9-1 by Spokane midway through the period. The Blazers got one power play in the first, and would score on it with one second left on the man advantage as Kamloops took a 2-0 lead into the intermission. Spokane had out shot Kamloops 12-9 in the period and had three of the four power plays, and yet trailed by two. Not a good sign. At all. The Blazers would get Stankoven's 4th goal of the series just under 4 minutes into the second to go up 3-0. The Chiefs battled back as Erik Atchison got his first of the playoffs at 14:33 to bring Spokane within 3-1. Kamloops, as they did in game two, would answer quickly, as the Blazers scored 2:13 after Atchison's goal to take a commanding 4-1 lead into the third.
Spokane would get three straight power plays for the second time in the game spanning the second and third periods, but came up with a big goose egg, as the Chiefs would go 0-6 on the night with the man advantage. The club has struggled against the Kamloops penalty kill, going just 1-20 in the series. Kamloops conversely has gone 5-19, getting their 5th power play goal on their first chance of the third period on a net front rebound. The Blazers would go 2-6 on the power play in the game and would outshoot Spokane 39-26, including a 30-14 margin over the final two periods. The Blazers 5-1 victory puts Kamloops up 3-0 in the best of 7 series, one in which they have outscored the Chiefs 20-3 in the three games.
Things are pretty bleak for Spokane right now. They hopefully will have Sward back for Friday's game 4 at the Arena, but Beaupit's status is a huge question mark. If he's unable to go, this series...and season...are history for the Chiefs. Beaupit has been their best player this year and without him, they will not win 4 straight against the B.C. Division champs. The next three games are set in Spokane, so hopefully the team can summon some home magic to make a series of it, but thus far the Blazers have been the superior team. Hopefully the Chiefs can get more than one home game in for this series, but it's going to take an extraordiary effort to do so. I'll have the call for game 4 Friday night at the Arena on 103.5 FM the Game starting with the pre-game show at 6:30pm and the puck drop at 7:05 pm. If the Chiefs win Friday, game 5 is set for Saturday at the same times. A game 6 if necessary would be Monday at the Arena at the same times. Let's see how things pan out, and hope for a good crowd Friday to get things rolling for the boys. We hope to see you at the rink!