The Western Hockey League playoff picture is clearer today after Greg Leeb and the Spokane Chiefs wrapped up second place in the WHL West in their final regular-season game.
The Chiefs, on Leeb’s two goals, whipped the Tri-City Americans 3-1 before 10,455 Saturday night in the Arena.
They’ll open a best-of-7 first-round series in Kelowna, possibly Saturday night although dates have yet to be confirmed. Spokane’s first home playoff game is a week from Tuesday night.
The second-seeded Chiefs are matched against the fifth-seeded Rockets. In other first-round pairings, No. 1 Portland opens at home with No. 6 Seattle. Third-seeded Prince George gets the home-ice advantage with the No. 4 seed, the Kamloops Blazers.
The highest surviving seed after the first round sits out a short best-of-five division semifinal that brings together the next two highest remaining seeds.
The Chiefs (45-23-4) finished with the second-best regular-season record in their 13-year history in Spokane.
The Americans (17-49-6) wound up in the cellar for the second straight season.
Although Tri-City goaltender Aaron Baker kept it close with 44 saves he had 88 in two nights against the Chiefs Spokane had no trouble handling the Ams for the 10th time in 12 games.
They outshot them 47-18.
“What we like about the way we’re playing is we haven’t given up many opportunities,” Babcock said. “Now, it’s desperation time.”
The Chiefs took a one-goal lead into the first intermission when Rick Berry’s blast from just inside the blue line through a screen got by Baker.
Severson, who had a pair of assists, played despite a second-degree hip flexor pull that usually calls for a week on the shelf.
“My parents were in the stands,” explained Severson, a force here since his Jan. 15 trade from Prince Albert. “It took a while to get the feel for the team. Finally, it’s all coming together. Kelowna has owned us in the recent past, but playoffs is a different game.
“We’ve got the skill and we’ve got a lot of guys who go to battle.”
The Chiefs and Americans traded second-period goals - Leeb scoring his 45th before Bobby Almeida countered for Tri-City to end goaltender David Haun’s bid for his first shutout in a Spokane uniform.
Leeb rang up his 46th goal of year in the third period to wind up the regular season with 97 points. It pushed his career total to 292 points, No. 5 on the Chiefs’ career list.
It was the last regular-season game for 20-year-olds Leeb, Trent Whitfield and Perry Johnson. Leeb will leave after the Memorial Cup tournament in two months second on the team’s all-time list in games played with 276.
Scoring the game-winning goal was another gem for Leeb - fitting in that he, Whitfield and coach Mike Babcock go back four seasons, through 162 wins together.
“That’s a lot of hockey,” Babcock said. “Those two guys have set the work ethic for four years.”
The sold-out crowd brought attendance to a club-record 289,724.
Honored before the game was Spokane linesman Steve Murphy, who made this his last game after 15 years in the WHL.
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