Playing the Portland Winter Hawks is no longer an easy two points.
They won just 11 games during the regular season last year, and after Sawyer Mick scored the game-winning goal 15 minutes, 41 seconds into the third period on Saturday night, the Winter Hawks picked up their 12th Western Hockey League victory of this season with a 2-1 win over the Spokane Chiefs in front of 6,232 fans at the Arena.
“They just play a lot harder than they did last year,” Chiefs defenseman Jared Cowen said. “I think everyone in the league knows that. It’s not surprising anymore.”
The Chiefs’ Achilles’ heel on Saturday night, though, wasn’t a lack of scoring opportunities. It was, quite simply, the inability to put the puck in the net.
“Early especially we had a lot of good chances to score and we just couldn’t score,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said. “It’s disappointing that we couldn’t put the puck in the net, however, I do like the fact that we created as many chances as we did. It’s not for lack of effort. The guys are putting pucks on the net, the rebounds are there.
“We’re so close some nights, yet we’re so far away.”
Spokane dominated puck possession in the opening period, outshooting the Winter Hawks 14-4, but failed to capitalize on several odd-man rushes and rebound opportunities.
“We didn’t capitalize on the good chances we had,” Sauter pointed out.
Portland eventually did.
Stefan Schneider put the Hawks on the board first – 3:50 into the second period – when teammate Killian Hutt delivered a precise and well-timed pass from the left board as Schneider skated in and buried the puck from low on the right post.
Center Kenton Miller pulled Spokane even with just under a minute remaining in the period, scoring a scrappy goal from the slot after Dustin Donaghy backhanded a short pass from the right circle.
The Chiefs played well in the third period, again creating chances on offense despite missing three of their top scorers who are off playing in the World Junior Championships, but eventually Mick squeezed the game-winner through.
Spokane pulled goalie James Reid – who finished with 20 saves – off the ice with about 1:30 remaining in regulation, and with the 6-on-5 advantage Spokane threw five more shots at Ian Curtis, who turned away 31 shots in his first win of the season. But Curtis stood on his head, as they say in hockey, and Portland pulled out the victory.
“Our lack of scoring got us,” Sauter added. “David Conrad had a breakaway, we had a 2-on-1, early Jared Spurgeon had (Curtis) down and kind of knifes it over the net and at the end there was a puck laying in front of the net and Dustin Donaghy shoots it and I don’t know how it didn’t go in – my arms were in the air and I thought we’d tied the game, but obviously it didn’t happen.
“It was just a little bit frustrating and disappointing tonight.”
Saturday’s loss widened the gap in the U.S. Division standings, as Tri-City (27-10-0-2, 56 points) has a nine-point lead over the Chiefs (22-14-0-3, 47 points).
Spokane returns to the Arena ice on Wednesday night when it hosts the Chilliwack Bruins (12-25-2-2).
Defenseman Mike Reddington remained out of the lineup Saturday after reinjuring his groin during Wednesday’s game at Tri-City. Reddington missed nine games prior to the holiday break and didn’t play Friday in Kelowna.
David Gore and Jose Reyes scored two goals apiece and Jamie Galbraith had a goal and an assist to give the Kamloops Storm a 5-4 victory over the Spokane Braves at Eagles Ice-A-Rena.
Jake Peterson and Conner Olstad scored two each for Spokane (17-17-2).
Kamloops improved to 26-9-3.