VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The Western Hockey League playoff series dubbed the Battle of the Champions is starting to live up to its billing.
A smothering defense and sparkling goaltending have given the 2007 Memorial Cup champion Vancouver Giants a 2-0 lead in the Western Hockey League Western Conference best-of-7 semifinal playoff series over the Spokane Chiefs, the 2008 Cup champions.
The Giants, on the strength of two power-play goals, dropped the Chiefs 4-1 in front of 8,916 fans Saturday at the Pacific Coliseum.
Both teams have played physical, hard-nosed hockey, with the Giants coming out on the winning side in both games at home. The series swings back to Spokane for two games starting Tuesday.
Chiefs goaltender Dustin Tokarski was solid in goal, facing 34 shots in the loss. The Chiefs could only muster 19 shots on Giants goaltender Tyson Sexsmith. The Chiefs were unable to break the 20 shot barrier in Game 1 as well.
“I think (Saturday) we had some flurries at their net, whether they blocked them or we missed the net, I thought we actually had some decent pressure,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said. “Obviously, we’ve got to find ways to get more pucks to he net.”
Drayson Bowman broke Sexsmith’s shutout bid with a power-play marker at 6:56 of the third period. The high, hard shot that beat a screened Sexsmith was Bowman’s sixth tally of the playoffs.
“They always play defensive hockey like that,” Bowman said of the Giants. “They push everything to the outside real well and really limit your time with the puck. It’s just a matter of getting your space. We’ve got to get more pucks on (Sexsmith), that’s the bottom line.
The Chiefs were called for nine minor penalties, a double minor and three misconducts. The Giants took five minor penalties, a double minor and a 10-minute misconduct.
“The needless penalties I think we have to lose,” Sauter said. “The glaring mistakes have to be held to a minimum, and if we can find a way to work three or four more pucks on their goalie and at least have the opportunity to have some more action around their net. I think that’s a good start.”
Both player and coach believe the team can turn the series around in the two games at home.
“We’ve got confidence in the character in our room,” Bowman said. “We’re not out of it. We can definitely turn this around, but it’s going to take a big effort in Game 3.”
The Giants’ scorers were Jonathon Blum with two and Craig Cunningham and Casey Pierro-Zabotel with one each.
The Chiefs enjoyed two first-period power plays but managed just one shot on the first man advantage. Despite controlling the puck in the Giants’ zone, Spokane failed to get a shot on goal during the second power-play opportunity.
Pierro-Zabotel scored the Giants’ fourth goal at 9:05 of the second period. Despite giving the Giants’ three power-play opportunities in the third period, the Chiefs managed to keep Vancouver off the scoreboard in the final frame.
“I thought they played really well and checked us really well and we just capitalized on our opportunities,” Pierro-Zabotel said, adding Tokarski helped keep the Chiefs in the game. “He’s a really good goaltender, but I think we’re just trying to get lots of shots on him.”
Giants 4, Chiefs 1
First Period—1, Vancouver Blum 3 (Kane, Manning), 5:09. 2, Vancouver Cunningham 4 (Regner, Wright), 16:23., Second Period—3, Vancouver Blum 4 (Pierro-Zabotel, Nunn), 6:11. 4, Vancouver Pierro-Zabotel 3 (Kane), 9:05., Third Period—5, Spokane Bowman 6 (Miller, Wahl), 6:56.
Power-play Opp.—Spokane 1 of 4; Vancouver 2 of 9. Saves—Spokane, Tokarski 13-10-7—30. Vancouver, Sexsmith 7-7-4—18. A—8,916.