SPOKANE, Wash. — One of my favorite aspects of working in the Western Hockey League is there is a built-in break midway through the season during the Christmas holiday. Whether it's seven, eight, nine or ten days, it's a welcome getaway to take a breath and re-gather yourself before making the push into the second half of the season and into the playoffs. It's also great to re-acquaint with family and friends during the most festive time of the year as well.
The break came at the perfect time for the Chiefs as well, as they limped into the break in last place in the U.S. Division and the Western Conference after an injury-riddled first half to the season. Three forwards and a defenseman were out with weekly to monthly injuries and the club had skated short-handed for over half of the first half of the campaign. The eight-day break was a welcome respite to get some players healed up and ready as the Chiefs embarked on a grueling four games in five nights stretch in the first week back from the holidays.
In keeping with the struggles the team has been presented this season, another hurdle came up as the team resumed play this week, Covid. The omicron variant has spread like wildfire across the planet, and the Western Hockey League has proved no exception.
The first day back Tuesday, no less than 36 players and staff across the league had contracted Covid and were placed on quarantine. For the Chiefs, 4 players and staff tested positive, leaving the club shorthanded once again as they got ready to face Seattle in a home and home Tuesday and Thursday.
Game one in Kent Tuesday night would see the Chiefs facing a Thunderbirds club that made waves through the league on Monday when they made two trades with Swift Current and Medicine Hat to bolster their roster. The T-Birds were sitting second in the division and conference, 6 points back of leader Everett, entering Tuesday's game. Spokane meantime was 5 points behind Tri-City for 4th in the division, and 7 back of Victoria for the 8th and final playoff spot in the West.
The Chiefs have some work ahead of them, and it would start Tuesday against the Thunderbirds. Goalie Mason Beaupit, who has been excellent in the first half, would get the start against a T-Birds club that had beaten Spokane 4 of 5 meetings. The Chiefs had won the last matchup though taking a 3-2 overtime decision in Spokane on December 4th. Spokane had only played once in Seattle thus far, dropping a 5-3 outcome on October 19th. Tuesday night's game didn't have an ideal start for the Chiefs as Seattle scored just 32 seconds into the game to jump out to a 1-0 lead. That margin would hold through the first period as the Chiefs were outshot 10-5 in the frame. The second period would start with Spokane on the power play and the Chiefs converted just 34 seconds into the period as Erik Atchison scored his 4th of the year to even the contest at 1-1. Spokane would get another power-play chance less than 2 minutes later and Bear Hughes would score 7 seconds into the man advantage to give the Chiefs a 2-1 lead. Those power-play goals jump-started Spokane to a 4 goal explosion in the period as Cordel Larson and Chase Bertholet scored 2:18 apart to lift the Chiefs to a 4-1 advantage after two periods. Spokane scored all 4 goals in the first 8:21 and outshot Seattle 16-5 in the period while generating 4 power-play chances.
Seattle would come out in the third and cut the lead in half with a goal 2:33 into the period to make it 4-2, but the Thunderbirds would commit a 5 minute major penalty less than a minute later to put the Chiefs on the power play. Graham Sward would score 55 seconds into the man advantage to put Spokane back up by 3 at 5-2. The Chiefs got the offense rolling again as Bear Hughes sealed up a three-point night with a net-front feed to Yannick Proske midway through the period to give Spokane a commanding 6-2 lead. Seattle would cap the scoring with a goal in the final 5 minutes as the Chiefs notched their second straight win over Seattle with a 6-3 victory. Bertholet would lead the offense with a career-high 4 point performance with a goal and 3 assists. Spokane went 3-7 on the power play and a perfect 6-6 on the penalty kill to move within 3 points of Tri-City for 4th in the division and 5 points back of Victoria for the final playoff spot in the West.
The Chiefs then headed home for the back half of the home and home series with the Thunderbirds as they hosted Seattle on Thursday hoping for the 2 game sweep. Seattle welcomed back a couple of key players to their lineup, none bigger than defenseman Kevin Korchinski. The Thunderbirds power play, which went 0-6 in Tuesday's game, would come out and score on their first chance Thursday as Seattle jumped out to a 1-0 lead. Spokane would answer though midway through the period when Yannick Proske scored his 7th of the season to send the game to the second period tied at one. Seattle would re-take the lead on a goal at 7:26 of the second but the Chiefs would come back with a Bear Hughes power-play goal at 17:01 to even the contest at 2-2. Just when it looked like the teams would head to the third tied, Seattle would score with just 44 seconds left in the frame to take a 3-2 lead after 40 minutes.
The third period would unravel for Spokane in a hurry. The Chiefs took 3 straight penalties to start the period and the T-Birds took full advantage as they went 3-5 on the power play in the third to blow the game open and win it 6-2. Special teams play was the exact opposite of Tuesday's game, as Seattle finished 4-7 on the power play after their 0-6 performance at home. Conversely, the Chiefs were 1-4 after going 3-7 in Kent. The loss was further damaging as Victoria won again Thursday, moving 9 points up on Spokane in the Western playoff race and the Chiefs were now 8 points back of Prince George for the final playoff berth heading into a home and home series with rival Tri-City on Friday and Saturday.
The Chiefs and Americans have met on New Year's Eve every year since the early 1990's and it's been a game Tri-City has dominated in the past. Spokane was facing off against their oldest rival for the first time since late October and had won 3 of 4 from the Ams in the early-season meetings. The Chiefs were still shorthanded though as they were down 6 players heading into Friday with 5 forwards and 2 defensemen out of the lineup. There was some good news though as leading goal scorer Luke Toporowski was back in the lineup and his line with Blake Swetlikoff and Cordel Larson would turn out to be the line that would dominate Friday night's contest. Spokane got out to a quick 1-0 lead on James Form's first goal as a Chief just over 2 minutes into the game. Swetlikoff would follow with a rebound at 8:22 of the period for his 6th goal of the season to make it 2-0 Spokane. Toporowski then scored his team-leading 12th of the year to give the Chiefs a 3-0 edge at 12:06 of the first. Tri-City would score with just under 5 minutes left to cut the margin to 3-1 after one.
Swetlikoff would put Spokane back up by 3 with his second goal of the evening on a power-play tally at 8:33 of the second to make it 4-1 Chiefs. Tri-City cut the margin in half with a goal off a net-front scramble midway through the period to leave the Chiefs up 4-2, but Spokane rookie Kooper Gizowski would put the Chiefs back up 5-2 with his first career goal at 17:10 to give the team a 3 goal lead heading into the third. Toporowski would strike again for his second goal of the night at 5:37 of the period to put Spokane in control of a 6-2 game. Tri-City would score their final tally of the night midway through the period to cut the lead to 6-3, but rookie defenseman Timafey Kovgoreniya would cap the scoring with his first WHL goal into an empty net in the final minutes to wrap up a convincing 7-3 Chiefs victory. With the win, Spokane moved within one point of Tri for 4th in the division. Goalie Manny Panghli picked up his first victory of the season with a 19 save performance as the two clubs headed up Highway 395 for the back half of the home and home series on New Year's Day in Spokane.
A win in regulation by the Chiefs would push them past Tri-City in the division standings and would get Spokane within 5 points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. As would be expected in a 4th game in 5 nights, the start was a bit sluggish for the Chiefs in the first period as they managed just 5 shots on goal offensively. Fortunately, Manny Panghli in his second straight start, was sharp as he turned away all 12 Tri-City chances in the opening 20 to keep the game scoreless after one. Spokane would break out just 36 seconds into the second period as Chase Bertholet scored his 4th goal in 9 games with the Chiefs to put the club up 1-0. Tri-City would equalize on their first power play of the game less than 2 minutes later to tie the game at one. Spokane would retake the lead with just 1:09 remaining in the period when Luke Toporowski scored his team-leading 14th of the season to give the Chiefs a 2-1 lead after two.
Things would really pick up offensively in the third as the two clubs combined for 6 goals. Erik Atchison would give Spokane a two-goal lead with his 5th of the year on a great give and go with Toporowski 4 minutes into the third to make it 3-1. Tri-City countered with a goal 1:45 later to cut the margin to 3-2. Toporowski then scored his 4th goal in 2 nights against the Americans on a perfect pass from Atchison on the power play at 6:59 to put the Chiefs back up by two at 4-2. Once again, Tri-City came back as they narrowed the lead to 4-3 at 14:06 of the third. Atchison would cap a three-point period and get the eventual game-winner on a tip of a Graham Sward shot just 43 seconds later to give the Chiefs a 5-3 lead. Tri-City scored after pulling their goalie with 1:08 remaining to get within one, but Panghli and the Chiefs defense turned away the Americans in the final minute to preserve their second straight win over Tri-City with a 5-4 victory.
The win marked the 5th straight vs. their arch-rivals and lifted Spokane a point ahead of Tri into 4th place in the U.S. Division. More importantly, both Victoria and Prince George lost on Saturday, enabling the Chiefs to move within 5 points of both the Royals and Cougars for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Chiefs will now get a light week to heal up, which is a great thing, as the team had 8 scratches in their lineup for Saturday's game with Tri-City. Spokane will have a challenging two-game weekend though, as they host division and conference-leading Everett on Friday before beginning a 3 game road trip at second place Seattle on Saturday. Spokane has struggled against both clubs, going an abysmal 2-9-2 combined against the Silvertips and Thunderbirds. Hopefully the club will get some much needed rest and healing and be able to earn some much needed points within their division.
I'll have the call on Friday night on 103.5 FM the Game and 1510 AM KGA, while Saturday's game from Seattle will be on 94.1 the Bear and 790 KJRB due to Gonzaga basketball. The pre-game shows start at 6:30 pm with the puck drops at 7:05 pm. We hope to see you at the rink!