Seconds after Spokane center Steven Kuhn dropped to the ice to block a shot from the point, Kenton Miller slipped a little drop pass to Blake Gal, who went backhand for a pretty goal.
“It’s an intestinal fortitude skill,” appreciative Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said of the fourth goal in a recent 5-0 win over Tri-City. “You’ve got to have courage. Without courage you don’t have a chance to be a hockey player.”
Kuhn falls into that category.
“It’s always been in my game,” Kuhn said. “It’s not so much making yourself do it, it’s starting to become a habit. Don’s a really good coach and he’s instilled in us … blocking shots, defense first … little habits like that, those are the things that add up and lead to goals like that.”
What Nachbaur really likes is that a third-year player is setting a good example as the first-year coach installs his system.
“He’s been a good guy as far as being a leader (and) has been a real good visual for our young guys,” Nachbaur said. “I can go back to the guys and say that’s the way you want to do it.
“I can go to that play in particular, paying the price to keep it out of your net, is being instilled by your leaders. It is a classic goal, without that contribution defensively they wouldn’t have had that opportunity offensively.”
It’s not just Kuhn. He centers a line with Miller and Gal that has become the backbone of the team. They are often matched against the opposing team’s top line.
“All three guys are responsible without the puck, it starts there,” Nachbaur said. “All four of our lines have been solid defensively but that line in particular you can throw against the other team’s top two lines and feel comfortable they’ll do things right defensively and win the battle offensively.”
They are enjoying the challenge.
“It’s nice to have high expectations,” Miller said. “When you fulfill them it’s that much better. When we do it (coach) gives us lots of credit so it makes it rewarding.”
Gal said, “It shows the coach has a lot of confidence in you when he puts you out there against the other team’s top line. … Take away their first line to give our first line a chance to go out and do their thing.”
Tyler Johnson’s line with Levko Koper on the wing has been the Chiefs’ most productive, despite a revolving door at right wing. Johnson has 13 goals and 17 assists, with Koper five points beind on 12 goals and 13 assists.
Kuhn’s line has contributed its share of offense. Kuhn, fresh off a three-point night, has four goals and 10 assists, Miller has 13 points with six goals, and Gal has 10 goals plus a pair of assists.
“I don’t view them as a checking line,” Nachbaur said. “If you put them on against the other team’s top line they’ll come out ahead on the plus-minus line. Usually when you have a checking line you have your fingers crossed they’ll come out even. If they’re all playing well this is as good of line as there is.”
Kuhn, 19, Miller, 19, and Gal, 18, broke in together.
“Those two guys are probably two of my best friends on the team,” Kuhn said. “Our rookie year we played together and I thought we did well. I think the chemistry is coming back.”
Kuhn, from Oyen, Alberta, and Miller, from Redvers, Saskatchewan, are farm boys, but Kuhn said that while that may factor into their friendship, it didn’t really mold him into the blue-collar player his coach likes.
“Growing up I just kind of helped out but I never got too much into driving a combine,” he said. “The old man wanted me to be a hockey player, not a farmer.”
Despite growing up on the edge of a town of about 1,000 residents, Kuhn is comfortable in Spokane, having adjusted to the city during his years of playing midgets and bantam.
“It might make a difference if this wasn’t a place I liked living,” he said. “I pretty much like everything about the city so it doesn’t make me too homesick. Spokane is a first-class organization.”
It shows in his work.