When it seemed as if the Spokane Chiefs weren’t going to find the back of Portland’s net again, the Winter Hawks did so for them.
And what a gift it was.
With two Chiefs skating in on him, Portland defender Troy Rutkowski intercepted a pass but cleared it into his own net. That goal – credited to Steve Kuhn, short-handed – proved to be the winner as Spokane beat Portland 4-2 on Wednesday at the Arena.
“I was there to put it in,” said Spokane’s Drayson Bowman, who earned an assist on the play and remained at 99 career goals. “But their guy got to it before me.”
The goal, officially Kuhn’s sixth of the season and his first winner, came with 4:34 left in the third period, less than 5 minutes after Portland had tied the game at 2.
On their two previous visits to Spokane, the last-place Winter Hawks had left with a pair of 2-1 victories over their U.S. Division rival in the WHL.
“This was exactly what we needed,” said Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter, whose team will visit Portland next. “Hopefully, we realize how we need to be prepared to play this team so we can come out and play 60 minutes on Friday.”
Had they lost this game, Sauter admitted the Chiefs (25-14-0-3) would have been too far back to realistically make a run at division leader Tri-City (30-12-0-2), which saw its cushion over Spokane trimmed to nine points on Wednesday after losing 3-2 at Kelowna.
Sauter and his players said they underestimated Portland (12-28-1-2), though the Chiefs had their chances to turn the game into a rout. They fired 48 shots on goal, took an early lead for the second straight contest and held the momentum for seemingly all of the second period.
They also welcomed back goalie Dustin Tokarski, who had missed 10 games while leading Canada to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships.
The Chiefs didn’t make a line change before giving Tokarski a lead. Just 22 seconds in, Ryan Letts settled a loose puck in the right circle, and his wrist shot found the bottom left corner of the net to give Spokane a 1-0 lead.
After Portland’s Chris Francis tied the game at 1 on a breakaway goal, Brady Calla’s first goal with the Chiefs gave them a 2-1 lead with 1:23 left in the first period.
“It’s a lot of weight off the shoulders, I guess you could say,” Calla said of his goal. “But at the end of the day, I’ll do whatever I can do to help the team win: a blocked shot, a big hit or something, a fight, whatever.”
Portland goalie Ian Curtis kept his team in the game, though, making 44 saves – 23 of which came during Spokane’s second-period onslaught.
It was only after the Winter Hawks had tied it at 2 midway through the third that Curtis was finally beaten again – by his own teammate.
Tyler Johnson snapped a wrist shot past Curtis in the final 2 minutes to give Spokane its final goal, his 10th of the season. Dustin Donaghy assisted on the Chiefs’ first two goals.