The Spokane Chiefs marked the half-way point of the Western Hockey League in style Wednesday night, using a hattrick from leader Tyler Johnson to highlight an 8-2 thumping of the Seattle Thunderbirds before 5,816 fans at the Arena.
With their third-straight win, the Chiefs reached the 36-game mark of the 72-game season at 21-10-3-2 for 47 points, six points behind Portland, which has played three more games.
“In the past couple of years we had people with a lot of skill, more individual players,” Johnson said after his third career hat trick moved him into second in the league points (56) and goals (27) races. “This year it’s been a team game. Everyone contributes. We have a lot of guys getting into that 10 goal range and I don’t think we’ve had that in the last few years. It’s been huge for our team. Everyone scores.”
Johnson and the Chiefs were amazing in the second period, a carry over in energy, if not results, from the first, which ended 1-1.
Steve Kuhn broke the tie at 5:27, starting an onslaught against Seattle goalie Calvin Pickhard. Johnson notched his 25th at 11:24, Post Falls native Tanner Mort scored at 12:35 and then Johnson hit at 15:31 and 19:09.
Each goal was as much about the set-up as the finish, especially with Levko Koper and Dominik Uher setting up Johnson and Kenton Miller’s helper on Mort’s goal.
“My linemates have been unbelievable,” Johnson said after Uher assisted on all three goals and Koper on two. “I really didn’t have to work too hard for my goals. I got set up by my linemates. That’s something I really appreciate. I love playing with them.”
The Chiefs were a little sluggish at the start and the Thunderbirds (15-13-3-4, 37 points) made them pay, Travis Toomey get his sixth with a high shot from the right circle past James Reid on a two-on-one. That seemed to wake up the Chiefs but Marek Kalus didn’t get the equalizer until 18:28.
“I thought we came out flat,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said after his team out-shot Seattle 56-15, including 22-4 in the second period. “We gave up that first goal, Reid1er would probably like to have that one back. Next thing you know we’re starting to play hard. Second period we started to play like we can.”
In the third period Matt Marantz and Tyler Vanscourt beat Seattle backup goalie Michael Salmon.
The Chiefs, maybe the most surprising team in the league, face the two teams that are hot on their heels in the Western Division, at Tri-City on New Year’s Eve and Kelowna New Year’s Day.
“I thought it would depend on how hard our team worked,” Johnson said. “I’ve been on teams that had a lot of skill but you don’t always finish first. We don’t have that much skill. We really have to work hard to win our games.
“I think Don has really helped us with that. He’s been a huge asset for our team. I talked to people about it before the season and they said the sky’s the limit with him and they’re definitely right.”
Nachbaur was low key.
“I know where we were picked by the Western Hockey League writers,” he said. “I had expectations. I never go into a season thinking we’re going to be last. “You set your bar high, you go to work every day and try to attain that.
“Our guys, through thick and thin, injuries, tough times, we’ve always found a way. That’s the sign of a good team.”