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Chiefs open season Saturday night at Tri-City

Spokane  Chiefs' Tyler Johnson may miss Saturday night's regular-season opener. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Chiefs' Tyler Johnson may miss Saturday night's regular-season opener. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The games count now but the sense is training camp isn’t quite over for the Spokane Chiefs, who open the Western Hockey League season Saturday night at Tri-City.

“The initial phase of training camp is over now with the numbers cut down (but) there is still a battle for pecking order,” first-year coach Don Nachbaur said. “They’re all going to play. It’s up to them to decide where they’re going to play.”

After the opener in Kennewick the Chiefs have six days before their second game on Friday at Kootenay, which is the night before the home opener against Tri-City.

“There is a lot of teaching you can do in practice but a majority of your learning comes in game situations,” Nachbaur said. “It’s competition that brings out the best in players (and) the competitive side of you comes out in games.

“The structure is put together in practice, and then when you get in games, when the heat is on, sometimes you lose your structure because of the way guys compete. The game breaks down really well, you find out who the competitive guys are and who aren’t.”

Intense opener

The Chiefs opened last season with a two-game set in Prince George but more often than not over the years Spokane and Tri-City have started the season going head-to-head.

“I think I’ve played them about 100 times in my career,” 20-year old forward Levko Koper said. “It’s going to be a battle.”

Veteran goalie James Reid is even happier the game is in the Toyota Center.

“It’s one of my favorite games,” he said. “I love it there, just the atmosphere there. Their fans are crazy. I love loud buildings.”

That the Americans are three-time defending division champions and won the Western Conference title last season makes it an even better opener.

“You want to be challenged by one of the teams you considered as one of the top teams,” new coach Don Nachbaur said. “It’s a great way to get started. There is a lot of pressure on the home team, especially when you raise a couple banners.”

That the Americans won their first two division titles with Nachbaur behind the bench is meaningless to everyone involved except maybe the fans.

“It will be special when I walk out with two (points),” he said. “It won’t be so special if that doesn’t happen. It’s just another game, it’s a 72-gamne schedule and I don’t look at where we’re playing. The allegiance has changed, I did that as a player getting traded. You put on another jersey and that becomes your heart and soul.”

Mix and match

The forward lines and defensive pairings Nachbaur rolls out against the Americans tonight could be completely different in a week.

“Early in the season, until we see who has the chemistry to play with one another, there may be some mixing and matching,” he said. “It really depends on the players, too. They earn the right to play with other players and earn the right to play up another line. I’m going to give them that opportunity.”

That opportunity goes both ways.

“Those guys that play on the top line, if they’re not pulling their weight, they’ll slide down a line or two,” Nachbaur added. “Healthy competition within the team makes your team better.”

Another factor is lineup changes.

Brenden Kichton, expected to be an offensive threat from the blue line, came back from NHL camp with a broken finger that could sideline him another month. Captain Jared Cowen is still with the Ottawa Senators and may not return.

Forward Tyler Johnson just got back from camp in Minnesota and may not be available for the first game because of an “upper-body” injury.

“If Cowen comes back that changes the back end drastically,” Nachbaur said. “Put Tyler up front, that changes things drastically. That chain reaction moves on down the line. Everything can change with one player going into the line.”

Ice chips

The Chiefs kept seven rookies, but only one is 16, defenseman Reid Gow, last year’s first-round pick in the bantam draft. There are three rookie forwards (import Marek Kalus, 17, Collin Valcourt, 17 and Mike Aviani, 17), three on defense (Gow, Tyler Vanscourt, 18, and Cole Hamblin, 17) and backup goalie Matt Engle, 17. … Tri-City has kept highly-regarded offensive 16-year old Connor Rankin, its No. 1 pick last year, along with two other 16-year-olds, forward Marcus Messier and defenseman Riley Guenther. … … Eight Saturday home games will be televised on SWX, beginning with the home opener next weekend against the Americans.