When the regular season ends, hockey players like to say that a new season begins.
The slate is wiped clean for the Spokane Chiefs and the 15 other playoff-bound teams around the Western Hockey League after seven months of the regular season.
For the Chiefs, the reigning WHL and Memorial Cup champions, that fresh start begins tonight at the Arena against the Seattle Thunderbirds in the first game of their best-of-7 Western Conference quarterfinal series.
Though the teams haven’t met in the postseason since 2001, they’re quite familiar with one another. Both teams are in the U.S. Division and have already faced each other nine times this season. The fact that the fourth-seeded Chiefs finished 20 points ahead of the fifth-seeded Thunderbirds in the standings means little at this point.
“We played them and went 5-3-0-1 against them and all but one of those games were real close,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said. “We expect, as most (No. 4) versus (No. 5) matchups go, that both teams are going to work real hard and make very few mistakes. We expect, and are ready for, a long and hard-fought series.”
One thing that the Chiefs have dealt with all season, and are still dealing with, are injuries to key players – specifically to their defensemen. Three key veterans and one of their more physical rookies are sidelined and it doesn’t look as if any of that will change for the first two games of the series.
Second-year standout Jared Cowen (knee) and rookie Cory Baldwin (hand) probably won’t be back for the remainder of the playoffs.
Cowen definitely will not play again until next season, as he had season-ending knee surgery to repair his torn ACL and MCL in February.
Baldwin’s hand injury will likely keep him out for at least four more weeks, if not longer.
Overage veteran Trevor Glass, who has been dealing with a nagging upper-body injury, skated for the first time in more than a month Thursday and Sauter said his status will be evaluated on a day-to-day basis. His partner on the blue line, three-year veteran Mike Reddington, has been fighting a serious flu for the past week and isn’t likely to get back on the ice until the third or fourth game of the series.
“All year long we’ve had to piece together lineups here and there and we’ve thought, or at least hoped, that the more the young guys got to play the more it would help us in the end if we needed to rely on them,” Sauter said. “Now we’re at the point where it’s time to go, and we do need them, and hopefully that experience throughout the year will pay off now.
“We just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re a group that skates pretty well and we’re a fairly smart group that moves the puck quick and gets the puck hard to the forwards and allow them to do the offensive attacking.”
The Chiefs’ forwards who have had the most success against Seattle this season are leading scorer Drayson Bowman and two-way veteran Levko Koper. Bowman has buried nine goals against the Thunderbirds this season, and more important has been stellar in the second half of the season, scoring 31 goals and 59 points in 31 games.
Seattle’s top scorers in its nine meeting with the Chiefs during the regular season were Jeremy Boyer (three goals, four assists) and Jim O’Brien (three goals, four assists). Seattle has won just 11 games on the road this season, two of which were in Spokane. Rookie goalie Calvin Pickard, younger brother of Tri-City goalie Chet Pickard, took over the starting role near the end of January and will likely be in net for the Thunderbirds tonight. … In the opening game of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal between the No. 1 Calgary Hitmen and No. 8 Edmonton Oil Kings, Calgary won 5-0. Former Chiefs assistant Steve Pleau is the Oil Kings’ head coach.
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