SPOKANE, Wash. — When the Chiefs had 4 games postponed due to weather and covid-19 in mid-January, I'm sure the club didn't fully realize how important those 4 games were going to be for their post season hopes. At the time, Spokane was down in the bottom 3 of the Western Conference and had overturned their roster from the beginning of the season in October. When the games were re-scheduled though, just about everyone looked at the final weekend of the year and circled the dates of April 15 and 16 when Spokane would finish the regular season with two games in Victoria. The Royals had been down towards the bottom of the conference standings with the Chiefs practically all season, so it came as no surprise when the final weekend rolled along that these two games would make or break each teams season as to whether they made the playoffs, or went hope for the summer.
After winning 4 of their last 5, Spokane came into the weekend with 23 wins and 51 points, tied with Prince George for the 7th and final 8th playoff spot in the West, one point back of 6th place Vancouver. Victoria was on the outside looking in, but just one point back of the Chiefs and PG, with 22 victories on the year. A sweep by either the Chiefs or the Royals and the winning club was in. Conversely, losing a pair would keep Victoria out and Spokane would need a lot of help to keep from being eliminated. A split of the two games would give Spokane the tie break for having the most victories, as well as winning the head to head with the Royals. Spokane was in good shape as they also owned the tie break over Prince George, whose final two games were at Kelowna and Kamloops.
It was literally a mini playin playoff for both the Chiefs and Royals as they met in game one on Friday in Victoria. Spokane was as healthy as they have been all year, as forward Carter Streek was off the injured list. Unfortunately, the club was without third line center Blake Swetlikoff as he was on covid-19 protocol. His abscense was a big one for Spokane as he had scored the game winning goal in the Chiefs 6-5 overtime victory over Victoria in the two teams only meeting back in Spokane on November 30th. Victoria had lost 4 in a row coming into Friday's game, but had won 5 of 6 prior to that. The Royals had been a streaky club all year but has been quite resilient, as they managed to be in contention for the playoffs despite losing 17 in a row earlier in the season.
Spokane knew a win Friday in regulation would clinch a playoff spot while Victoria knew a loss would end their season. It became obvious from the puck drop who the more desperate team was as the Royals won practically every puck battle early and win on the low wall in the Chiefs zone became a goal net front less than 2.5 minutes into the game as Victoria took a 1-0 lead. The Royals Marcus Almquist then snapped home a shot far top corner at 5:36 to make it 2-0 Vic and the Chiefs were scrambling. Another goal at 8:43 made it 3-0 Royals and then Almquist, who had scored 5 goals all season, scored his second of the period at 10:31 to give Victoria a 4 goal lead midway through the first. It really felt like the Chiefs were going to get blown out of the building at this point as the Royals had out shot Spokane 12-2 at this point.
The Chiefs would get the final two shots of the period, and fortunately, would score on both! Chase Bertholet, who was Spokane's best player on this night, went far post on the rush at 16:13 to cut the lead to 4-1. Just 29 seconds later, Bertholet found Nick McCarry open net front and Spokane had cut the lead in half at 4-2 at the end of the first. The Royals came out in the second and scored a quick goal just 1:07 into the period to go back up 5-2, but Bertholet would notch his third point of the night as he fed Cade Hayes net front for Hayes 8th of the year at 4:53 to bring Spokane back within 5-3 at the end of two. The Chiefs came out and controlled the puck early in the third but a turnover at the Victoria blue line led to a breakaway goal 5:25 into the period and effectively ended the game at 6-3. Victoria would add an empty netter in the final 1.5 minutes to seal up a decisive 7-3 victory and take game one of the weekend.
Spokane had now gone from a tie for 7th with Prince George to 9th place and out of the playoffs in one evening. Prince George won in Kamloops while Vancouver picked up a point with an overtime loss to Kelowna. Vancouver and PG were now tied for 6th and 7th with 53 points apiece, while Victoria was one point back in the final playoff spot in 8th with 52 points. The Chiefs were one back of the Royals with 51 and now faced a win or go home scenario the next night as they took on the Royals for the second straight time. One thing was for certain, Spokane was going to need a lot better start on Saturday then the one they got on Friday.
They would get it and then some. The Chiefs would strike first as Cade Hayes scored a goal in his second straight game at 11:14 to give Spokane a 1-0 lead. Victoria came right back and evened the game at one just 50 seconds later but back came the Chiefs as Reed Jacobson scored his 3rd of the year at 13:41 to put Spokane back on top at 2-1. The Chiefs would get back to back power play chances from there and they would capitalize on the second. Ty Cheveldayoff, who had assisted on Jacobson's goal, scored on a net front scrum at 18:17 on the power play to make it 3-1 Chiefs after the first period. Spokane out shot the Royals 12-4 in the first, the exact margin Victoria had out shot the Chiefs the night before in taking a 4-2 first period lead.
Spokane would get out shot 13-12 in the second and would have to kill off two Victoria power plays, but would also score the only goal of the period. Raegan Wiles 9th of the year would give the Chiefs a 4-1 lead heading into the second. Number one overall pick Berkly Catton assisted on the third and fourth goals for Spokane, picking up his first multi point game of his career. It will be the first of many believe me. In the third, the Chiefs went on the defensive as Victoria swarmed the Chiefs end most of the period, out shooting Spokane 20-3 in the final twenty minutes. Goalie Mason Beaupit, as he has so often this year, stood tall and turned away 19 of those Royals shots to preserve a 4-2 victory. Spokane's penalty kill was a perfect 8-8 over the weekend, a huge sign heading into the playoffs.
Spokane would finish in a three way tie with Prince George and Vancouver for the final 3 playoff spots. In the complicated tie break system when three teams are involved, the first is goal differential over the course of the season. Prince George won that as they didn't give up as many compared to what they scored. As a result, the Cougars got the 6th seed and a first round playoff with Portland. In the next tie break, the Chiefs got the 7th seed as a result of winning the head to head series with Vancouver 3-1. Spokane also won the head to head with PG 3-1 and the series with Victoria 2-1, but none of that came into play as the Chiefs will now face B.C. Division champ and #2 seed Kamloops in the first round of the playoffs.
It's the first playoff meeting between the two since 2001, a series I remember well. Spokane was the lower seed and the underdog that year but shocked the Blazers in a 4 game sweep under Perry Ganchar. Dean Evason was the coach of the Blazers. He is now the head man with the Minnesota Wild. The Chiefs will be bigger underdogs in this series and will have some adversity to overcome scheduling wise. Due to the Paul McCartney concert taking over the Spokane Arena the last week of April, Spokane will have to play the first 3 games in Kamloops starting on Friday, April 22nd. Game 2 is set on Saturday the 23rd, and game 3 is Monday the 25th. Spokane will then host 3 games at the Spokane Arena starting Friday, April 29th. It's going to be a difficult task to say the least. At least the team is there though, something no one could have predicted in mid-February when the Chiefs were at the bottom of the West. I'll have the call for the first three games from Kamloops on KEY 101 FM with the pre-game shows at 6:30 pm and the puck drops at 7:05 pm. Congrats to the Chiefs on making the playoffs and we hope to see you on the radio!