The stars were missing, but the effort, smarts and sacrifice weren’t.
It’s hard to say Spokane’s 4-2 Western Hockey League victory over the Tri-City Americans was unexpected on Saturday night – expect a little of everything in one of the WHL’s most rabid rivalries. But the fact that the Chiefs were playing without three of their top four scorers and regular goaltender Dustin Tokarski certainly made it an uphill skate.
But several young players rose to the occasion, the Chiefs kept their penalties to a minimum and got a strong defensive game to pull within three points of the lead in the U.S. Division.
Read on for an unedited version of the game story, plus a few web-only notes.
By John Blanchette
Now this was something to write from home about.
Whether by cellphone or cyberspace, the Spokane Chiefs had good news – make it great news – to share with their absent teammates Saturday night as their Western Hockey League season resumed after the holiday break.
With four standouts off at the World Junior Championships in Ottawa and a fifth regular at another international event, the Chiefs put together one of their best efforts of the season in a 4-2 victory over the rival Tri-City Americans in front of 8,631 fans at the Spokane Arena.
“Oh, I’m sure there’ll be a few text messages going out,” said Chiefs captain Justin McCrae.
The missing Chiefs are making news of their own – Drayson Bowman, Tyler Johnson, Mitch Wahl and Dustin Tokarski all played prominent roles in wins for the United States and Canada on Friday night. That took three of Spokane’s top four scorers and the starting goaltender out of the lineup, but the remaining – and new – Chiefs could hardly have handled the challenge any better.
Third period goals by 20-year-old veterans Trevor Glass and McCrae broke open a one-goal game and gave goaltender James Reid room to breathe despite a flurry of 17 Tri-City shots over the final 20 minutes. But the tone was set much earlier – and the pivotal score was triggered by a 16-year-old wearing the Spokane uniform for the first time in a WHL game.
After a first period that produced no goals and nine roughing penalties, Spokane took a 1-0 lead on Jared Cowen’s slap shot from the top of the left circle off a fine pass from the back wall by Seth Compton. But it took the Americans only 38 seconds to answer, when Adam Hughesman had a wide-open net after corralling the rebound of a Taylor Procyshen shot 4:12 into the second.
It was the first real precision on offense the Americans had shown, but if they thought it might get them in a rhythm, Anthony Bardaro had other ideas.
A sixth-round pick in the 2007 bantam draft, Bardaro just joined the Chiefs on Friday – basically in time to be told how much a game against the Americans means.
“They just told me it’s a four-point game and that makes it real big,” said Bardaro. “But the crowd being that big surprised me.”
He surprised them back, making a steal and a shot on goal that rebounded to the stick of teammate Ryan Letts, who backhanded it past Ams goaltender Drew Owsley to break the tie after just 1:31 had lapsed.
“I think it was (Jason) Reese – I saw him lift his stick off the ice and I don’t think he saw me behind him,” Bardaro said. “I just made my move and cut around him and I saw Letts going to the net hard. I just threw it on net, hoping the rebound would come out to him.”
With Tri-City’s star goaltender Chet Pickard splitting time with Tokarski for Team Canada, much of the focus naturally centered on their replacements. Reid was solid with 26 stops for Spokane, but Owsley – 5-1 in six starts in Kennewick this season – wound up getting pulled after Spokane’s fourth goal.
But Spokane also received particularly solid efforts from younger players like Kenton Miller, David Conrad and Steve Kuhn – and managed to keep the Ams’ bigger guns from doing much damage, leading scorer Reese going without a point.
“We went a few guys after them,” said Cowen, “and got in their face a little bit. We really don’t think they’re a physical or tough team.”
But they’re still three points ahead of the Chiefs in the U.S. Division standings, with a rematch coming New Year’s Eve in Kennewick. Spokane coach Hardy Sauter would like to see his team follow through on its approach this night.
“I liked the fact that we finished some checks – especially against some of their better players,” he said. “Usually they have a tendency to take our better players kind of out of the game by finishing checks and playing tight against them. I thought we did a good job of doing that tonight.
“The sacrifice for the team mentality carried over into just about everything we did and ultimately it gets us the win.”
ICE CHIPS: The game took on a physical (and occasionally chippy) tenor from the start – nine roughing penalties in the first period, five more in the second capped by a showdown between Spokane’s Dustin Donaghy and TC’s Tyler Schmidt. It happened on a Spokane power play late in the third period when Schmidt blasted Donaghy from behind into the Tri-City net, with play moving the other way. Donaghy got the better of the ensuing fight, which raged for what seemed like a full minute.
Regarding the rough play, Spokane defenseman Jared Cowen insisted, “It’s funner that way.” Cowen, however, took a hard shot late in the first period that stopped play, though he returned before the period was over.
Spokane allowed just three power play opportunities to the Ams and killed all of them – allowing no shots during one in the second period. Tri-City brought the heat on Reid in the third period, especially during one flurry when Spokane’s fourth line got caught on the ice for an extended time against the Ams’ top line. T-C had a final man advantage with 15 minutes to play, but Reid defused it with one impressive save.
Sauter was especially high on his defense: “They did great job of controlling the play and moving the puck to the right spots. If your defense does a good job in your end, especially on dumps, it’s a lot easier for the forwards to at least get it out of our zone. We did a good job at least early of entering their zone and creating some opportunities off the rush.”
Though first-gamer Bardaro admitted his focus was “not causing any problems,” he also knew it was a chance to make an impression for down the line. He’s playing for his third team this season, having been promoted from Aldergrove in the Pacific International Junior Hockey League, where he had 22 goals in 27 games, to Surrey in the British Columbia Hockey League.
“It’s an opportunity for a lot of guys to step up,” said McCrae. “We just need to make sure we keep things simple, keep the energy up and keep going to the net. If we play like that, the goals will come just like they did tonight.”