You could excuse the Spokane Chiefs for humming the tune to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” before Saturday night’s Western Hockey League game at Spokane Arena.
It was the team’s sixth game in nine days – a 4-0 victory over Vancouver – and the third time in that span that the Chiefs played one game on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass one night and at home the next. If players were looking forward to today’s plane tickets home for a nine-day Christmas break, no one would blame them.
Which makes this shutout win over the Giants that much more impressive.
Dominik Uher scored a pair of goals and added an assist while goalkeeper James Reid made 15 saves to notch his 11th career shutout, sending the team into the break with 19 wins in 34 games, inching a game closer to Portland, which lost 4-2 to Seattle. The Chiefs padded their lead to three games over Tri-City, which lost 4-2 to Everett.
“The schedule hasn’t been kind to us,” coach Don Nachbaur said. “I think both teams had heavy legs. Vancouver had the same kind of schedule and they took their lumps in Tri-Cities (on Friday).
“When you’re tired like that, you look for your goalkeeper to backstop you and Reid did that for us.”
On Friday night Spokane was shutout for the first time this season, falling 2-0 at Everett in a game in which they trailed 1-0 before the Silvertips added an empty-net goal late.
“We struggled last night and it was frustrating,” Uher said. “We wanted to get back out there and put that one behind us.”
The Chiefs untracked their power play early. Vancouver’s Michael Burns was ticketed for cross-checking 1:46 into the game. At 3:01 Uher, sitting just outside the Giants’ crease, punched home a centering pass from Levko Koper to put the home team on the scoreboard.
Spokane added its second goal 37 seconds into the second period.
Vancouver center Craig Cunningham, who should have known better, launched a blind, weak pass from his knees in the corner to Giants’ goalkeeper Mark Segal’s right. The pass stopped in front of Koper, who fired a one-time shot past the defenseless Segal.
Matt Marantz scored five minutes into the third period and Uher added his second goal at the 14:33 mark to give the Chiefs a 4-0 lead.
The Giants mounted their only serious threat with just over two minutes left in the game, with a shot and a rebound both being turned away by Reid.
Going into the break in second place in the U.S. Division is a boost to a young Spokane team. The squad played this week without its top defenseman, Jaren Cowen, who is away playing with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.
“We have some young guys who have stepped up and have played well,” Nachbaur said. “We expected them to – and they had to. If you don’t play well, someone is always there to take your place. I think Kich (Brenden Kichton) has stepped up to be a leader with our defensemen and I think we’ve rallied to him.”
The division, too, has proven itself in the first half.
Portland leads the Western Conference with a 25-9 mark, but the fifth-place team in the division, Everett, goes into the break a game over .500.
“In all my years in the WHL, this is the toughest I’ve seen our division be,” Nachbaur said.
The break comes at a good time, he said. Most of the team flies out of Spokane today and will meet up in Seattle after Christmas for a day of practice before a Dec. 28 game with the Thunderbirds.
“Most of these guys are 16-, 17-, 18-years-old and they’re all away from home,” Spokane’s Tyler Johnson said. “I don’t know what that’s like because I’m from here, but you hear them talking and I know it’s tough on them to be away from home. They’re looking forward to seeing their families.”