Spokane coach Hardy Sauter had no problem calling his Chiefs the underdogs, because technically they are.
When it comes to playing against this year’s Vancouver Giants, most teams would be considered underdogs.
The B.C. Division champion Giants, who boasted the second-best record in the Western Hockey League behind the Eastern Conference’s Calgary Hitmen, finished 24 points ahead of Spokane in the regular-season Western Conference standings.
After battling their way to a 4-1 opening-round series victory over the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Chiefs – defending WHL and Memorial Cup champions – will now go head-to-head with the Giants, the 2007 Memorial Cup champions who are fresh off of sweeping former Chiefs goalie Kevin Armstrong and the Prince George Cougars 4-0 in their first-round playoff series.
The best-of-7 series kicks off with the first two games tonight and Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia, and resumes Tuesday and Wednesday in Spokane.
“In this series we’re coming in as the underdog and we’re looking forward to the challenge,” Sauter said earlier this week.
Don’t let the numbers – or Sauter’s comment – fool you.
The fourth-seeded Chiefs – who ousted Vancouver from the playoffs last season, coincidentally, in the second round – aren’t without their weapons, and the top-seeded Giants don’t consider themselves Goliath by any means.
With little separating the teams from one another on paper, this series could come down to the last line of defense for both teams. The series could easily end up being a goaltender’s duel between Spokane’s Dustin Tokarski and Vancouver’s Tyson Sexsmith.
The two talented goalies – the past two Memorial Cup championship team’s starting goalies and the last two goals-against average leaders in the WHL – are even talking about it. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that both goalies feel like they still have something to prove against the other.
Tokarski, who was the starting goalie for the gold-medal winning Canadian world junior team in January and has already signed an entry-level contract with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning after being drafted in the fifth round last summer, is looking to avenge two regular-season losses to the Giants in which Vancouver outscored Spokane 9-2.
“It could come down to a goaltenders’ battle,” Tokarski told the Vancouver Province. “It’s two good goalies going at it. You definitely want to be the better goalie every game.”
Sexsmith, the Giants’ starter who was signed by the San Jose Sharks after being selected in the third round of the 2007 NHL draft, was one of the final cuts from the Canadian world junior team this year. He was also the WHL’s regular-season goals-against average leader for the past two seasons, but Tokarski ended that run this season.
“When you get cut from a team and he’s the guy that makes it, you’ve got something you want to prove,” Sexsmith told the Vancouver Province. “I’m excited. It should be a good series, and it could be a battle of the goalies. I love a challenge and I think it only makes me play better.”
Chiefs defenseman Mike Reddington, who was sidelined with an undisclosed illness the past three weeks, has been cleared by doctors to play and will be in the lineup tonight, Sauter confirmed. Rookie defenseman Cory Baldwin (hand) could be ready to return in as little as a week. … Tickets for Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s games at the Arena are on sale. … All games in the series will be televised on Comcast channel 79.