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Winterhawks put Chiefs out of misery

Home is where the hemlock is.

The season is over for the Spokane Chiefs – bitterly and yet, sad to say, not a minute too soon.

Oh, without question the Chiefs and the Portland Winterhawks put on your show of shows in the finale of their opening-round Western Hockey League playoff series, and most of the time you can never get enough of the special theater that is Game 7. The chaotic, overtime thriller staged Wednesday was certainly no exception.

But even before this series passed the midway point, it took on a heavy weight for the Chiefs – and had they managed to hang on to any of their many multigoal leads in Game 7, the sense was that it would have been merely postponing the inevitable.

After all, they would have had home-ice advantage in the next round against Vancouver. No good could come of that.

So the 5-4 overtime loss to the upstart Winterhawks could be called a mercy killing, though that suggestion wouldn’t find much purchase in the Chiefs dressing room.

“There are a lot of good things and plusses to take away,” said Spokane coach Hardy Sauter, looking at the season as a whole, “but quite honestly, it’s a heart-wrenching ending and one we didn’t expect and don’t like – and don’t really want.”

Well, they certainly had the tools to avoid it.

Who surrenders a 3-0 lead in Game 7? Or a two-goal edge in the final period? Who wastes a 2-games-to-none lead after winning a pair on the road? Who fails to win any of four games on home ice?

Ladies and gentlemen, your Spokane Chiefs.

Once the Winterhawks clawed back to tie, it was only a matter of time before they found the back of the net for the winner – and the time was 17 minutes, 29 seconds into the overtime, when Ty Rattie flipped one past goaltender James Reid as the spent Chiefs watched Portland’s Taylor Aronson skate unmolested behind the net.

This will be the goal that goes down in the lore of quite a little history of Game 7s between these two clubs – just as the puck Chad Klassen batted out of midair and into the net closed out three straight wins for Spokane in 2003, just as Andrej Podkonicky’s controversial poke of the puck David Haun seemingly had covered beat the Chiefs in 1998, just as Darren Sinclair’s overtime winner completed Spokane’s comeback from a 3-0 deficit in 1996 after a Portland goal was waved off.

But the truth is, Portland won this series – the first in WHL history in which the home team never triumphed – a week ago in Game 3.

That’s when the Chiefs came back to the Spokane Arena having swept the opening two games in Portland, when Reid was magnificent in goal – and his teammates played listlessly in a 2-1 loss to the Winterhawks.

“Arguably, if we do have our best effort, you put a stranglehold on the series,” Sauter said. “And it’s too bad, because we felt like losing the momentum in Game 3, it really took a lot to get it back in games 4, 5 and 6.”

It wasn’t just momentum. It gave the Winterhawks a reason to believe.

Portland hadn’t been in the playoffs since 2006. None of the players who dressed for this series was even around to watch as scratches back then.

“When we didn’t win the first two,” said Portland coach Mike Johnston, “I told our team, ‘When we win our first game, we’ll have the experience we need.’ Because until you win your first game in the playoffs, you don’t know how to win. When we won Game 3 – and won it convincingly – that was a big turning point.”

As he had in previous losses, Sauter bemoaned “bad breaks” – a rather hollow explanation for a team that boasted such an edge in experience, to say nothing of the home hammer.

More to the point is why a team which played so solidly the last six weeks of the regular season slipped back into a maddening inconsistency in the playoffs, where the notion of the Chiefs putting together a full 60 minutes was as ridiculous as the home-ice jinx.

What’s worse is the nagging feeling that in the wake of the giddy high of winning the 2008 Memorial Cup, the Chiefs didn’t get all that much done with the talent that remained – and now face the likelihood of a significant dip next year.

“The disappointment of the game hits you tonight,” Sauter said. “Tomorrow it’s the disappointment of losing some guys who have been Chiefs for a while and have done some good things for this hockey team.”

Just not enough of them right here in Spokane, in the last eight days.