Time and time again the Spokane Chiefs have proven their ability to go from an overnight bus trip to an evening game – and most of the time they make it look relatively easy.
But common sense indicates it can’t always be that simple, and Sunday night, the third night in a row Spokane played, the Chiefs ran out of gas.
After picking up a shootout victory over the Kootenay Ice in Cranbrook, British Columbia, on Saturday night and becoming the fifth team in the league to clinch a playoff berth, the Chiefs returned home for a Sunday night Western Hockey League tilt with the Kelowna Rockets.
Kelowna’s captain, Colin Long, took care of scoring for the Rockets, and after a hard-fought 60 minutes it was the Rockets who left the Arena with a 2-1 victory.
“I didn’t think Kelowna was tired and they’ve done the same thing (playing this weekend) that we did, so I don’t think that is an excuse for us,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said, dismissing the idea that bus legs got the best of Spokane.
“The effort was good, and we did a lot of good things tonight,” Sauter allowed.
But one bad play – and one bad bounce – and the game slipped through their hands.
Long put Kelowna on the board first when he took possession of a Spokane turnover in the neutral zone and charged up the ice, scoring a shorthanded one-on-one goal against Chiefs goalie Dustin Tokarski 7 minutes, 36 seconds into the game.
Thanks to Tokarski, though, that wasn’t the Rockets’ – or Long’s – second goal of the night. Just 4:36 into the game, Long and teammate Cody Almond were in the low slot and Long quickly redirected a shot that got behind Tokarski, who swung around and stopped the puck just as it was about to cross the goal line.
“I thought Dustin was real sharp tonight,” Sauter said. “He definitely gave us a chance to win tonight, especially early when they had some good chances.”
It wasn’t until 15:00 into the second period that the Chiefs evened the score, courtesy of a goal from defenseman Jared Spurgeon – who officially lost blueline partner Jared Cowen for the season this week when it was announced Cowen need reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL. Spurgeon buried a shot from the low slot after Ondrej Roman wrapped around the back of the net and centered the puck to Spurgeon for the goal.
“That was great position by Jared and really I thought all three guys did a great job during their shift,” Sauter said. “Dustin (Donaghy) did a great job a handling the puck in the (offensive) zone and Ondrej (Roman) did his job finding Spurg, who was wide open.”
But Long broke the tie 7:18 into the final period and the Chiefs were handed just their second loss in 14 games. Prior to Friday’s loss to Western Conference-leading Vancouver, Spokane had won 11 consecutive games – the second-longest winning streak in franchise history.
“The first 10 minutes of every period they outplayed us and the last 10 minutes we outplayed them,” Sauter said. “I wasn’t happy with the power-play goal – while we were killing the penalty Tyler Johnson cleared the puck and it bounced off the linesman and out of play and the face-off should have been outside but they put it inside. They got control of the puck and took advantage and scored.
“Obviously when you give up a shorthanded goal it’s a huge mistake, and it’s the same old thing – it seems to be what we do. When we make mistakes, they’re big ones and they cost us. Tonight we gave one up and we got an unlucky bounce that turned into a goal for them.”
The loss puts Spokane (34-16-0-3, 71 points) eight points behind the U.S. Division-leading Tri-City Americans (38-15-0-3, 79 points), who defeated the Lethbridge Hurricanes 5-2 on Sunday night. The Chiefs have played three fewer games than the Americans.
The Rockets (33-19-1-2) pulled two points within Spokane for third in the Western Conference standings.
The Spokane Braves blew a three-goal lead in the third period, but Connor Olstad scored with 5:25 left in regulation to break a 6-all tie and help the Braves beat the Castlegar Rebels 8-6 at Eagles Ice-A-Rena.
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