It’s one of the most overused clichés in sports: Defense wins championships.
The Spokane Chiefs are hoping that rings true, though, as defense happens to be their focus. That’s not to say they are punching their ticket yet, but as the playoff-bound Chiefs (49-14-1-5) head into the final weekend of the Western Hockey League regular season, the blue liners are as focused as ever.
“We came into the year with a defense-first look and we’ve really carried that throughout,” said veteran defenseman Justin Falk, a Minnesota Wild prospect. “It’s not just the D-men – it’s all six guys on ice. We’re about playing good (defense) and trying to limit other teams’ chances, and when we do that we benefit from it.”
A perfect example would be from the second period of last Friday’s 4-0 shutout of Tri-City. The Americans were cycling the puck in the Chiefs’ defensive zone, but were kept on the perimeter and were unable to generate anything. The Chiefs caused a turnover, sniper Drayson Bowman made a good pass up the ice to David Rutherford in the neutral zone and Rutherford, after some fancy stick work, buried a shot that gave Spokane a 2-0 lead.
For good hockey teams to be great, it takes that – six guys on the ice working as one unit. Certainly, the Chiefs have some innately defensive-minded forwards – guys like Chris Bruton, Seth Compton and Levko Koper, to name a few – who factor into the equation, but taking a look specifically at the Chiefs’ blue liners it’s easy to see why Spokane is three games away from setting the franchise record for fewest goals allowed in a season.
Falk, an alternate captain, has spent much of the season paired with someone from the rookie rotation of either import Stefan Ulmer, Brett Bartman or Jace Coyle.
Since the trade-deadline deal that brought veteran Trevor Glass to Spokane from defending WHL champion Medicine Hat, Glass and two-year veteran Mike Reddington have clicked as a blue-collar pair that is a combined plus-38 on the season. Rookie Jared Cowen (plus-28) and veteran Jared Spurgeon (plus-35) have also worked well together and been paired most of the season.
“It’s something we for sure pride ourselves on,” Falk said. “We’ve buckled down and we know that it begins and ends with us limiting other teams’ opportunities on offense.”
The season hasn’t come without a couple of low points, though, which Falk chalks up to valuable learning experiences.
“When the defense does let down, we get into trouble,” he said. “We like to play low-scoring games – sometimes we put up a pile of goals, but of course we always like to keep their numbers down. We had a weekend a while back where we had a pretty bad slump in a couple of games, and we took that as a picture of how bad it is when the defense breaks down.”
The weekend he’s talking about was in mid-February, when the Chiefs allowed 16 combined goals, seven to Tri-City and a season-high nine to Seattle. Since then, Spokane has given up 21 goals in its last 12 games.
Going out with a bang
The Chiefs close out the home portion of the regular season today when they entertain the Portland Winter Hawks in a 7 p.m. contest, the start of a fate-deciding weekend for Spokane.
Tied with Tri-City atop the U.S. Division and Western Conference standings with a game in hand, the Chiefs visit the Americans (50-16-2-2) on Saturday in Kennewick and close out the regular season Sunday in Portland. If both teams were to win tonight – with Portland at Spokane and Kelowna at Tri-City – the teams will be tied heading into Saturday, when the winner would take all. If Tri-City wins both, and Spokane beats Portland twice but loses to Tri-City, the Americans would have 52 wins while the Chiefs would have 51, which is the tiebreaker since they would both have 108 points.
Also in the picture are the B.C. Division champion Vancouver Giants (46-15-2-6, 100 points), who have three games left.