Only three games into the Western Hockey League season – and the first at the Arena – the Spokane Chiefs took a big step forward.
Blake Gal scored with 1 minute left in regulation and Mitch Holmberg scored 3:32 into overtime – the second goals of the game for both – to produce a dramatic 6-5 win over the Tri-City Americans before 8,686 fans Saturday night.
“I was just driving wide, trying to get a shot on net,” Holmberg said. “All week we’ve been practicing shooting, driving wide and shooting. That’s all I was thinking there and it went in. Tying it up with a minute to go was phenomenal.”
It was a far cry from the dismal season opener in Kennewick Sept. 25 and a definite improvement over Game 2 at Kootenay on Friday.
And maybe it was a surprise, considering the score of both losses was 6-3 and the Chiefs allowed some bad goals in this one, including a pair of scores by Adam Hughesman a minute apart in the early going of the third period that put the Americans up 5-4.
“It’s a sweet victory,” veteran coach Don Nachbaur said of his first win with the Chiefs, and not because it came against his previous WHL team. “It builds mental toughness. It builds the determination you need throughout the season. You’re not going to seal good teams away unless you stick with it 60 minutes. Third period we definitely stumbled a bit. We bent, but the end result is we found a way.”
Holmberg’s second goal came from a tough angle near the right circle, but Alexander Pechurskiy couldn’t handle it as Tri-City lost for the first time in five games.
Gal’s second was maybe even more dramatic.
The Americans, who scored the first goal of the game about 5 minutes in but trailed most of the game, dominated the third period, out-shooting the Chiefs 14-6. But some big saves by James Reid – and a few breaks around the net – kept Spokane in the game after Hughesman’s goals.
“Give them credit, they’re a good hockey team,” Nachbaur said. “They come at you in so many different ways. I just liked the mentality. We took a big step tonight versus a week ago and versus last night. It’s really good for our young guys.”
A late penalty on the Americans opened the door and Gal, who was sitting down at the bottom of the left circle, managed to whack in the tying goal.
That capped a big night for the first line of Gal, Tyler Johnson and Levko Koper.
T-C captain Kruise Reddick blistered a shot from the top of the right circle to the far post just as a Chiefs penalty expired for that early goal.
Then the Chiefs scored three quick ones, with Johnson, the new captain, in the middle of the action.
First he fed Gal to tie it on a power play at 6:38; then came back for his own goal just 19 seconds later; and finally he got the last touch to Koper, who assisted on the first two goals, cleaning up a loose puck at 11:45.
“That’s what you need out of your best line, your best players, your leaders, every night,” Nachbaur said. “When they don’t show up, when they have off nights, with a young group it’s going to be difficult. I thought last night they weren’t as good as they were tonight. Tonight they dominated when they had to. That’s great to see.”
Brooks Macek scored an easy power-play goal from the left circle at 12:48 to make it 3-2, but the Chiefs still came away with a whopping 19-7 advantage in shots.
The Chiefs should have escaped the second period with a 4-2 lead, thanks to Anthony Bardaro’s pass from behind the endline to Holmberg on the doorstep at 9:13. But during a late T-C penalty, Patrick Holland slipped behind the Spokane defense, took a long feed from Brendan Shinnimin and beat Reid for the shorthanded goal.
Holmberg, with three goals already after getting just four last year as a 16-year-old rookie, is hoping to lend a bigger hand on offense.
“I think I can definitely be in there helping out in goal scoring,” he said. “It’s happened so far for me, I hope I can keep it going. (The key is) getting bigger during the summer, trying to change my game up, getting shots on net, not always looking for the fancy play.”
The Chiefs have surrendered 17 goals so far, but help may be on the horizon since the Ottawa Senators sent defenseman Jared Cowen, their 2009 first-round draft pick, back on Saturday. His arrival date to the team, however, is unknown.
The Chiefs are on the road Tuesday and Wednesday before playing Portland twice at home next weekend.