As a potential playoff preview, this had to be a confidence builder.
The Spokane Chiefs got offense from three lines, played solid defense, had effective special teams and got big saves when needed to defeat the Kelowna Rockets 5-2 before 4,643 fans at the Arena Tuesday night.
That’s the way coach Hardy Sauter saw it, but maybe more important they didn’t back down as the game became increasingly chippy and came close to boiling over late in the second period, nor did they retaliate.
“Our guys found that (fine) line and they held to it,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said. “There was some conversation and a little bit of shoving, but I think once they realized we were going to shove back, sometimes it’s just a test.
“They’re a physical team that plays with aggression and you have to be prepared for that. You have to be willing not only to take a hit to make a play, but give a hit when you get a chance.”
Composure was the key according to Blake Gal, whose hard work set up the first goal. He scored the third goal, which seemed to deflate Kelowna (33-31-2-4, 72 points).
“We played well and stuck together as a team when it started getting rough,” he said. “It’s something that comes naturally with some guys. We do have role players on the team that will take care of it if we need that.
“With a potential playoff opponent, they need to know we’re not going to back down, we’re going to push back. It’s just discipline, we don’t need guys sitting out with suspensions when we’re hot.”
The Chiefs (43-21-3-2, 91 points) are still the fourth seed for the Western Conference playoffs, but pulled within two points of Tri-City and Everett, which lost 3-0 in Portland.
The Chiefs play a home-and-home series with the Tri-City Americans this weekend before Everett comes in for the last game of the season Sunday.
“We’re sticking together, battling hard,” defenseman Stefan Ulmer said. “We’ve been working together for six months and it’s all coming together, paying off for us.”
The Chiefs grabbed a 1-0 lead midway through the first period when Gal forced a turnover along the right boards and Kyle Beach got the puck for a short breakaway, with the big sniper snapping a wrist shot past Mark Guggenberger high on his stick side.
As Gal said of playing on a high-scoring line with Beach, who has 52 goals, and Mitch Wahl, who is sixth in the league scoring race, “Get them the puck and let them do what they do best.”
The teams traded power-play goals in the second period with the Chiefs adding two other goals on nifty passes.
Tyler Johnson hit Levko Koper for an easy redirect just 27 seconds in and after Shane McColgan deflected Antoine Corbin’s shot from the point for the Rockets’ goal at 5:39, Wahl made the play of the game. Skating down the middle he pushed the puck through a defenseman’s legs, blew past him to gather it up and slipped it across to Gal for a tap-in. In the final minute, Steve Kuhn’s work behind the net set up Ulmer’s blast from the point for a power-play goal and 4-1 lead.
Kenton Miller deflected Brett Bartman’s blast to make it 5-1 at 8:52 of the third period but Brandon McMillan got that back 7 seconds later.
“With the playoff race so tight, we need every win we can get and just a little help from other teams,” Gal said. “We have a lot of confidence in that room and we’re all working hard.”
Chiefs 5, Rockets 2
First Period—1, Spo, Beach 52 (Gal) 10:59.
Second Period—2, Spo, Koper 27 (Johnson) :27. 3, Kel, McColgan 25 (Corbin, Bowman) 5:39, pp. 4, Spo, Gal 10 (Wahl, Cowen) 17:06. 5, Spo, Ulmer 8 (Miller, Kuhn) 19:22 pp.
Third Period—6, Spo, Miller 11 (Bartman, Wahl) 8:52. 7, Kel, McMillan 20 (Jobke, Chapman) 8:59.
Power-play Opp.—Kelowna 1 of 3; Spokane 1 of 2. Saves—Kelowna, Guggenberger 7-6-x—13; Brown x-x-13—13. Spokane, Reid 9-14-6—30. A—4,643.