It’s not often a stretch of three wins and three losses is cause for enthusiasm.
But there is an exception, and that comes during every Western Hockey League season when teams load up for their annual tour through one of the other divisions in the other conference.
For teams in the U.S. Division, that means a trek east, alternating tours every year between the Eastern and Central divisions.
Spokane finished its Eastern Division six-games-in-10-days jaunt last weekend. By most accounts, the Chiefs, who departed with a 5-6 record, had a good trip.
“For me, one of the times of the year when you take a step, one way or the other, is your Eastern swing,” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. “I thought our Eastern swing was definitely a step forward for our team and our players.”
“We got back into the race, we didn’t lose any ground,” Spokane coach Don Nachbaur said. “Our team game and individuals within the team are making strides.”
The Chiefs, who play Edmonton (7-10-0-1) of the Central Division tonight and rival Tri-Cities (11-5-1-1) Saturday at the Arena, opened the trip two weeks ago today with their only clunker, a 3-2 loss in Moose Jaw.
“I thought we played well in every game except maybe the first game,” Nachbaur said. “We had a real strong third period, but the first two periods weren’t very good.”
The next night was an 11-1 rout of Regina. Two days later Spokane handed Saskatoon its first home loss of the year, 3-2, then lost 5-2 at Prince Albert on Wednesday, with the Raiders getting a late goal and an empty-net goal.
Brandon pulled out a 3-2 win in overtime last Friday, with all three goals coming on the power play, before the Chiefs bounced back with a 3-1 win at Swift Current the next night.
“A trip like that, you can come out of it with real strong positives or real strong negatives,” Nachbaur said. “The negatives are you didn’t do well in terms of winning games and you come out of it with a lot of injuries, because you pack a lot of games into a short time. And with the travel you have fatigue involved.
“Getting seven points out of the 12 was a real feather in our cap. I thought we could have had nine of the 12. A game we dominated and ended up losing. In hindsight you wish you had that back, which would have made our trip different.
Notable from the trip was being perfect on the penalty kill (16 for 16) except for the 2-for-5 night in Brandon, which included a too-many-men-on-the-ice call in OT. The Chiefs also outshot the home teams 209-168 despite getting outshot by 20 at Moose Jaw.
“The team game has been real good,” said Nachbaur, adding the forwards did a good job helping the defense and goalie James Reid. “We spent a lot of time in oppositions’ end, which translate into less time in your end … you don’t have to defend as much.”
The 11-1 game featured six points for Levko Koper. The last six-point game for a Chief was Ned Lukacevic’s three goals and three assists in a 7-4 home win over Portland on Dec. 15, 2004.
Overall, 23 Chiefs have at least one point and 20 of them have goals. Koper, with two goals on the trip, leads the way with nine. Tyler Johnson is the points leader with 21, seven of them goals. Defenseman Jared Cowen is the plus-minus leader at 11. Reid has lowered his goals-against average to 2.81.
“I don’t think we have the type of players that are going to score at will … which means we have to score by committee and by doing the right things,” Nachbaur said. “When you get 50 shots on goal, you can’t complain. … We had a strong work ethic. We created enough chances to have more goals, but it didn’t happen. That’s something we still have to work on.
“(But) I think it was a good trip for us. We learned a lot about ourselves, but more importantly what is happening in our locker room is transferring onto the ice, such as holding guys accountable and understanding you have to play the whole 60 minutes.”