It’s not a good sign when the top team in the Western Hockey League comes calling and gets a goal from its fourth line just 7:14 into the game.
That should have been the first clue it was going to be a strange Tuesday for the 3,642 fans at the Arena as the two best defensive teams in the league got into an old-fashioned shootout.
When the ice chips settled, Saskatoon, which had allowed 106 goals in 39 games, outscored Spokane, which had given up 93 in the same number of games, 5-4 – with a scoreless third period.
“The story of Jekyll and Hyde,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said. “We started poor, we played much better the first 12 minutes of the second, the last eight of the second we weren’t very good at all. In the third, both teams had chances and nothing would go. It’s too bad.”
While the Blades (29-7-1-3, 62 points) finished a perfect swing through the U.S. Division, the Chiefs (23-14-3-0, 49) dropped their fifth straight home game, all by one goal. Coming off a pair of one-goal road wins, the Chiefs reverted to their old form of too many turnovers.
“In Vancouver and Seattle we limited those almost to none, really,” Sauter said. “In tonight’s game and you add in the two Portland games right after Christmas, that’s the difference.
“That’s definitely something we’re going to continue to talk about and work on. Usually when our group decides to do something as a whole, they do it.”
Why they would get away from that against a team the caliber of the Blades is a mystery.
“Partly it’s because they’re young, partly it’s sometimes you try to make something happen and it’s not necessarily the low-risk play,” Sauter said. “For the most part, when we were going good and we won it’s because we’re taking care of the puck. When things aren’t going our way it’s usually because we don’t make the other team take it, we give it away.”
The first period was loaded with offense, with the Blades getting goals from Randy McNaught and Travis Toomey and Spokane picking up a Kyle Beach power-play goal.
Then came the wild second period.
Mitch Wahl and Steve Kuhn scored 47 seconds apart in the first 5 minutes for a 3-2 Chiefs’ lead. Stefan Elliott tied it at 8:26, but Chiefs rookie Mike Aviani scored his first career goal just 20 seconds later.
“It feels really good,” Aviani said. “Working hard, staying in front of the net in dirty areas and I got one.”
It was his seventh game after getting called up while players were off at tournaments.
“It’s been great, a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m learning from both the coaches, all the older guys. It’s given me a bit more confidence.”
The Blades retook the lead as Josh Nicholls scored goals just 25 seconds apart late in the second frame.
“I think at times we had the game in our hands, but when we got away from our gritty game plan it sort of went south for us,” Spokane defenseman Jared Spurgeon said.
“We just have to stick with what works. … Maybe it’s too much confidence. We start working then we start trying to get a little bit fancy, trying to make a nicer play than we were in the beginning. After that you start turning pucks over.”
The Blades elected to start Adam Morrison in net instead of Steven Stanford, who has inched ahead of Spokane’s James Reid for the best goals-against average in the league 2.30-2.32. Morrison and Reid both had 32 saves. … Spokane forward Matt Marantz could miss up to six weeks with a leg injury. Defenseman Grant Leedahl is day to day with a concussion.