SPOKANE, Wash. — Looking at the schedule for the next to last week of the first half of the season for the Chiefs, I thought it would be a relatively light week for the club as they had just 2 games on back to back nights in Portland over the weekend of the 10th and 11th. It would be a light week on the ice, yes. Off of it? Far from it, as the team shuffled the roster and would build for the future with a series of transactions and draft picks. Spokane would start the week with trading defenseman Chase Friedt-Mohr to the Edmonton Oil Kings for an 8th round draft pick. Friedt-Mohr had played most of the abbreviated season of 2021 and started the '21-22 year with the Chiefs before being sent to Kindersley of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in October. Later that same day, the big bomb would fall, as the Chiefs traded their captain, forward Jack Finley, to the Winnipeg Ice for forwards James Form and Chase Bertholet, and a 2nd round draft pick.
The trade I'm sure shocked many around the league, but given the Chiefs slow start this season and sitting 8th in the Western Conference standings, it was apparent Spokane wasn't going to be making a run at a division title; let alone a league championship this season. After having a good run over the last 4 seasons, the Chiefs are now in rebuild mode, and dealing the coveted Finley to a league and Memorial Cup contender was a big step towards building back the roster. Spokane has also been decimated by injuries up front this year, so getting some younger forwards will help bolster not only this year's club, but the next couple of seasons as well. Bertholet is the main acquisition here for the Chiefs as the second year forward has scored 17 points in 25 games with Winnipeg this season. He'll help bolster the power play and can also penalty kill regularly, so will be a welcome addition for veterans like Bear Hughes and Luke Toporowski.
After making a splash with the trades on the 6th, the Chiefs then took part in the U.S. and WHL bantam drafts on Wednesday and Thursday. The club in the U.S. draft took forward Trevor Connelly in the first round and forward Brendan McMorrow in round two of the two round Priority Draft. Thursday, Spokane would get 11 picks, including the first overall in the Bantam Draft. It was just the third time the Chiefs had the #1 overall pick, having selected defensemen Jared Cowan and Ty Smith the previous two occasions. They turned out to be pretty good picks the last I checked. This time around, Spokane took forward Berkly Catton from the Saskatoon Contacts with the top pick. If his team sounds familiar, it should. It's the same club where former Chief Adam Beckman played, and Catton works out with Beckman during the summers in Saskatoon. Becks is a pretty good player to learn from and emulate, so I for one am excited to see what Catton will bring next season to the Chiefs lineup.
Spokane was going to be without defenseman Timafey Kovgoreniya for the rest of December, as he had joined the Belarussian National Team at the World Junior Tournament in Denmark. The weekend series would also see the club without forwards Michael Cicek, Reed Jacobson and Grady Lane, who are still on the injured list. Spokane also re-assigned forward Braden Plaschewsky to make room for Bertholet and Form, as the newest Chiefs made their debut in game one of two against the Winterhawks Friday. The Chiefs had only played Portland once this season, getting shutout 3-0 in their 5th game of the year on October 10th. It was going to be interesting to see how much things had changed over the previous two months.
The Chiefs would do something in the first period they had failed to do the previous game in Portland, namely score. Spokane got on the board just over 12 minutes into the game when Cordel Larson scored on the power play to give the Chiefs a 1-0 lead after one. After playing a near flawless first, the Chiefs would give up 3 goals in the first 8:05 of the second as Portland would take a 3-1 lead after two. Any thoughts of a Spokane comeback in the third were dashed just 18 seconds into the period when the Winterhawks scored to go up 4-1. The Chiefs offense would fail to find the net again as Portland scored their second straight win over the Chiefs by that 4-1 margin. Spokane has now scored just one goal or less in 8 of 22 games this season and after Tri City beat Everett on Friday, the Chiefs are now tied with the Americans for 4th in the division and 9th in the conference. Victoria also won in Vancouver and with the victory, took over the final playoff spot in the West by 2 points over the Chiefs and Ams.
Spokane would look to salvage the final game in Portland the next night as they took on the Winterhawks once again at the Memorial Coliseum. It was the Winterhawks teddy bear toss night and it didn't take long for the fans in Portland to celebrate as they would score just over 7 minutes into the game to take a 1-0 lead. After cleaning up the bears, the Hawks scored again just over 3 minutes later to go up 2-0 after the first. The Chiefs would get their first power play opportunity late in the first and convert on it 1:28 into the second on an Erik Atchison goal to cut the deficit in half at 2-1. Portland answered right back though just over 2 minutes later with back to back goals just 39 seconds apart to go ahead 4-1 and see back up goalie Manny Panghli depart with an apparent injury. Mason Beaupit came out in goal and made a spectacular stop while Spokane was on the power play three minutes later. Luke Toporowski then went on a rush up the left wing and snapped home his team leading 9th goal of the year on the power play to bring the Chiefs within 4-2. Unfortunately for Spokane, every time they seemed to get some momentum, Portland would come right back and answer, as the Winterhawks scored their 3rd goal of the period late in the frame to take a 5-2 lead after 40 minutes.
The Chiefs got back on the power play early in the third and for the third time in 4 tries, the Chiefs scored on the power play as Toporowski scored his second of the night at 6:02 of the period to cut the deficit to 5-3. It was as close as Spokane came as once again Portland came right back, this time scoring 48 seconds after Topper's goal to go back up 6-3. The Hawks closed out the scoring with another tally midway through the third, and Portland locked up their second straight win over the Chiefs in as many nights with a decisive 7-3 victory. Despite winning the special teams battle with a 3 for 5 performance on the power play and 5 for 6 on the penalty kill, Spokane was outshot 43-21 in the game. Portland has now outscored Spokane 14-4 in their 3 wins over the Chiefs this season and have pulled 11 points ahead of Spokane for third in the division.
Worse yet for the Chiefs, they are now in last place in the U.S. Division and the Western Conference races. Tri City swept Everett over the weekend to go up by 2 points in the division for 4th. Victoria meantime, has won 7 of 9 to go ahead 4 points over the Chiefs for the 8th and final playoff spot in the West. As the team gets ready to wrap up the unofficial first half of the season before the Christmas break, Spokane has to find some answers over the final weekend before heading out for the holidays. The Chiefs will host Portland in another round of back to back games, this time at the Spokane Arena, on Friday and Saturday the 17th and 18th. The club will then finish off a 3 games in 3 nights stretch at Everett on Sunday the 19th before heading out on an 8 day break. The absolute last thing the team wants to do is finish on a thud and put themselves behind by even more of a margin in the playoff picture. Let's hope the team finds some answers...and soon, or a Merry Christmas will not be had by the Chiefs. I'll have the call on 103.5 FM the Game and 1510 AM KGA on Friday and Saturday from the Arena starting with the pre-game shows at 6:30 pm and the puck drops at 7:05 pm. Sunday's game from Everett will be a 3:30 pm pre-game and 4:05 pm puck drop. We hope to see you at the rink!