The Spokane Chiefs were hoping the difference between third and fourth place would depend on tonight’s game between them and the Tri-City Americans.
The Kelowna Rockets made sure it wasn’t.
Mark Guggenberger stopped all 22 Spokane shots, Brandon McMillan scored midway through the first period and that was all the Rockets needed for a 1-0 win over the Chiefs on Monday night at the Arena and secure the third seed in the Western Conference when the Western Hockey League playoffs begin later this week.
The Chiefs are locked in as the fourth seed out of the Western Conference and will meet the Seattle Thunderbirds in the best-of-7 first-round series.
“Tonight we had probably three or four guys that we needed to play well and they simply didn’t,” an admittedly angry Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said.
“We expect certain guys to do certain jobs – whether that job is to score, play physical, play good defense, be responsible with the puck – and if you’re not doing your job, you’re not helping our team.”
The Chiefs, understandably, were not 100 percent after 11 players were stricken with a serious case of food poisoning after Friday’s home game against Tri-City. The illness forced the postponement of Saturday’s scheduled game against the Americans in Kennewick, which will be made up tonight and televised on Comcast channel 78, and Sunday’s home game against Kelowna.
Still, Sauter wasn’t about to let that be used as an excuse.
“You can plead the sick case, but to ask someone to go out and work for 20 seconds at a time isn’t a whole bunch,” Sauter said. “For sure it was a factor – we had guys throwing up during the game – but they kept playing through it and dug in.
“There were too many excuses tonight and I think some guys felt like using them,” he added. “There were a couple guys that were sick that really didn’t give us anything tonight, but there were some guys that weren’t sick that didn’t play up to their potential. It’s too bad in a game this big.”
McMillan’s shot from the left point, which deflected off a Chiefs defenseman’s leg and past goalie Dustin Tokarski at the 10-minute, 15-second mark in the first period, proved to be the game-winning goal, despite a handful of odd-man rushes for Spokane and open looks at Kelowna’s net all night.
Spokane also was scoreless on four power plays – including 40 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage, a carryover from the first period, to open the second period. Coming into the game the Chiefs’ power-play unit ranked fourth overall in the league.
“Your power play can’t go 0-for-4, especially with a 5-on-3,” Sauter confirmed. “Not ever – but especially not against a good team like Kelowna.”
The Chiefs will close out the regular season tonight in Kennewick against the U.S. Division champion Americans with nothing on the line – except, of course, pride and momentum heading into Friday and Saturday’s playoff openers against the Thunderbirds at the Arena.
“We want to have some pride (tonight) and beat Tri-City,” said Tokarski, who made 23 saves against Kelowna. “That’s our focus right now.”
Chiefs forward Drayson Bowman, who had three goals and five assists in two wins last week, is the WHL player of the week.
Rockets 1, Chiefs 0
First Period—1, Kelowna, McMillan 14 (Grantham, Long), 10:15. Penalties-Grantham Kel (roughing), 13:08; Main Kel (tripping), 18:42; Almond Kel (holding), 19:56.
Power-play Opp.—Kelowna 0 of 2; Spokane 0 of 4. Saves—Kelowna, Guggenberger 10-8-4—22. Tokarski, 6-8-9—23. A—8,111.