With a dramatic come from behind overtime win over Portland in game 5, the Chiefs headed home to try to keep their season alive on Monday as they hosted the Winterhawks in game 6. Spokane got some great news right before game time as defenseman Filip Kral, who had missed both games 4 and 5 due to injury, returned to the lineup to help bolster the Chiefs blue line. The team was also trying to turn around a recent playoff history of struggling on home ice against Portland in the playoffs, as Spokane had not beaten Portland in Spokane since the 2011 West Finals, and had gone a dismal 1-10 in their last 11 home playoff games since 2010. The Chiefs had dropped their two home games in this series to the Hawks in games 3 and 4, with the game 4 defeat a particularly painful one after Spokane had coughed up a lead late in the third by giving up 2 goals in just 7 seconds.
Spokane looked to turn all that history around on Monday night at the Spokane Arena, and they started in a positive fashion in the first. The Chiefs Jake McGrew, who had scored the tying goal in the third period in game 5, scored a goal in his second straight game with a shot between the circles at 16:29 to give Spokane a 1-0 lead. Just 14 seconds later, Eli Zummack, who had set up McGrew's goal, scored on a tip of a Tyson Helgesen shot to give the Chiefs a 2-0 lead after one. Portland would cut the lead to 2-1 on a power play goal early in the third, but Spokane re-took a two goal lead on Ty Smith's first career playoff goal at 7:57 to make it 3-1. Ethan McIndoe's power play goal late in the second staked the Chiefs to a commanding 4-1 advantage after two and it looked like Spokane would cruise to their first regulation win in the series.
Portland had other ideas early in the third, as a goal just 4:07 into the period cut the lead in half at 4-2. The Chiefs and goalie Dawson Weatherill held firm though, as Spokane turned aside 14 of 15 shots from the Winterhawks in the period to keep the lead. Luke Toporowski would cap the scoring late in the third with his 2nd goal of the series and the Chiefs pulled even in the best of 7 at 3-3 with a 5-2 victory in game 6. The end of the contest saw a number of penalties and a lot of chippiness as Portland's frustration became evident. It was also message sending time from both clubs as they readied for game 7 the following night in Portland. The last time the Chiefs beat Portland in the playoffs was in a game 7 back in 2003, and Spokane was hoping to repeat history on Tuesday.
A quick start would go a long ways towards a win, but unfortunately for the Chiefs, the team just didn't have the energy in the first period they had shown in the previous games of the series. Dawson Weatherill kept the team in the game with 16 saves in the first, but Portland would break through with a Cody Glass power play goal off a tip midway through the period to take a 1-0 lead after one. The good news for Spokane was they were still down by just one goal heading into the second and one shot could pull them back even. That would be the case midway through the second when Ty Smith wristed one from the blue line to beat Cole Kehler to bring the Chiefs into a 1-1 tie after two.
The scene was set for a dramatic finish to an even series in the third period. Both goalies made great saves to preserve the tie as the game wound down to the final minutes. It was Portland who would break through as Kieffer Bellows one timer beat Weatherill under the bar with just 4:38 remaining to give the Winterhawks a 2-1 lead. Any hopes of Spokane getting an equalizing goal late went by the wayside when Portland converted their second power play of the night on a Skyler McKenzie rebound at 17:37 to go up 3-1. Spokane would frantically try to get one on the board by pulling Weatherill during a power play to get a 6 on 4 advantage, but Kehler stopped every chance as the Chiefs bid for a comeback would fall short 3-1 in game 7. In the end, the Chiefs were doomed by their special teams...for the first time in the series. Spokane was 0 for 2 on the power play and the penalty kill, as Portland's top line of Glass, Bellows and McKenzie combined for 7 points. The Chiefs meantime just got one point from Hudson Elynuik on the top line.
No doubt it was a tough way to see the season end, but the club just ran out of gas in game 7. Portland elevated their game, particularly their top players, and the Chiefs didn't match it. There's no question this playoff experience is going to serve this team well next season. Spokane is going to return the vast majority of their roster next year, and should be one of the favorites in the U.S. Division. Dawson Weatherill, late season call up Bailey Brkin and Donovan Buskey all return in net, as Weatherill and Brkin will both be 19's and Buskey an 18 next season. Buskey will definitely have age on his side, and does Spokane keep two 19 year olds to tend net? I would tend to doubt it, but Weatherill and Brkin both played well in the second half of the season. I would have to imagine that the Chiefs will look to trade one of them and address a need on the roster.
Defensively, the team loses captain Tyson Helgesen, who will be a huge loss on the blue line. Helgy was a warrior during the season and particularly during the playoffs. Spokane will have three over-agers back on defense next season as Nolan Reid, Jeff Faith and Dalton Hamaliuk are back. I think Reid is a sure thing after a career year offensively, and his defensive work was very under-rated. Faith played much of the year at forward, where he was an effective forechecker, but do you keep a 4th line forward as a 20? The Chiefs have done it before, but if I'm looking to make a run for the title next year, I doubt that happens. As for Hamaliuk, he's a long shot to return. He struggled during the Portland series, and as a 5th or 6th defenseman, it's hard to keep a 20 year old in that role. I would think the team will look to make a move with either Faith or Hamaliuk, or both by the beginning of next season. The club will have Filip Kral and Ty Smith back and they'll be a great nucleus. Youngsters Matt Leduc, Luke Gallagher, and Tyson Feist are also back, but they have to show improvement in strength, puck movement and skating to provide more of an impact than they showed this season.
Up front, the team loses over-agers Hudson Elynuik and Zach Fischer, as well as Kailer Yamamoto, who will take his talents into the Edmonton Oilers system next season. That's a lot of firepower to replace, but Spokane will not be lacking in depth on the forward lines. Leading scorer Jaret Anderson-Dolan is back and will be joined by 20 year old Riley Woods, who should be one of the 3 Spokane will keep. Then there's Eli Zummack, Ethan McIndoe, Jake McGrew, and Luke Toporowski, who all contributed regular minutes this past season. Riley McKay and Milos Fafrak are also back as 19 year olds and will expected to increase their production. Youngsters Cedric Chenier and Carter Chorney will have to take that next step to see regular playing time and contribute next season. First round pick Jack Finley and late signee Sean Gulka will be expected to get on the roster and make themselves factors up front. There will be a number of newcomers too, led by Adam Beckman and Cordel Larson, who will no doubt add depth to a deep forward corp.
Things are bright for this Chiefs team moving forward. Like any team, there are questions to be answered, but they are questions of depth and not production. This club made great strides in Head Coach Dan Lambert's first season in Spokane and they will only get better as this group is accustomed to the system and can concentrate on making the small changes and adjustments to take their game to the next level. I fully expect this club to challenge for the U.S. Division title as well as the top of the Western Conference. The refreshing thing, this group is expecting to do so as well. I just hope this team remembers the disappointment of their game 7 loss, and focuses on what it will take to win that contest, and many others next season. Winners knowww they will win, not just believe it. Let's hope this club acquires this mantra with their work in the off-season, and come back roaring to start the 2018-19 campaign!