There are two unwritten rules for Homecoming games – make sure it’s a good time for the alumni and schedule a patsy.
The Spokane Chiefs were wildly successful on both accounts Friday night.
A pregame ceremony honored the Top 25 Chiefs in 25 years, with 16, including four current players, in attendance. Then the near-hapless Prince George Cougars skated onto the ice for the formality of a 5-1 Spokane win, highlighted by a hat trick from one of current 25, Spokane native Tyler Johnson.
“I think it was a little motivation,” Johnson said of his second career three-goal game. “I’m used to watching those guys plays so it’s pretty exciting for me they’re in the crowd watching us. I thought I played hard and we played well tonight.”
Just 76 seconds into the game, a simple wrist shot by Brandon Kichton got past Hudson Stremmel and the rest was academic, although the Chiefs weren’t especially crisp.
The result wasn’t too shocking considering the Cougars (11-49-1-2, 25) have 20 fewer points than any other team in the division and have won just three games.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs (39-21-3-1, 82) moved one points closer to Everett, which lost to Tri-City 4-3 in overtime, with the league-leading Americans, seven points ahead, coming in tonight for a big showdown.
Spokane will have to be better than they were against the Cougars, considering PG had six futile power plays, a short-handed goal and banged three shots off the pipes, but that’s for tonight. Friday was a time to celebrate.
“It’s great you can have a night like this,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said. “It’s even better when your team can respond and play as good as it has to; not just winning the game but I thought we were pretty much in control for 55 of the 60 minutes.
“Today was a must win if we have any inclination of catching anybody ahead of us. We took care of business”
The crowd of 8,517 gave the honorees a loud welcome and then had plenty to cheer about.
Johnson got his goals off a pair of backhands, both as he was allowed to skate in on Stremmel unimpeded, and a Kyle Beach one-timer that deflected off his leg. Levko Koper also contributed a short-handed goal.
“It meant a lot,” Johnson said of the day-long festivities. “I grew up watching a lot of these players, they’re my idols. Being recognized as one of them is something that is a tremendous honor and I’m very grateful for that.”
Johnson notched his 29th goal, skating out from the corner to hit the backhand, less than three minutes after Kitchton scored. Then the rest of the first period was a little sloppy.
“It’s definitely hard playing in games like that when you get those early leads and everything is going your way,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you want to sit back on it. It’s a maturity test, you can’t do that. Our team learned a lesson, they fought back, hit a few posts. At first we were playing soft so we had to come into the locker and make sure that changed.”
Koper scored just 40 seconds into the second period, but the Cougars’ Alex Rodgers got a short-handed goal off a two-on-one at 6:34. Next up came Beach’s blast from the left circle that Johnson’s leg redirected, then Johnson stole the puck at the blue line and completed the scoring at 19:34.
“In the first we got a quick lead, then a better second and a real solid third,” Sauter said. “We didn’t score any goals but I thought our puck management, our penalty kill, our third period was real, real good.”