Blake Gal thought about the question.
Yes, he admitted, he may have scored a bigger goal in his career than the one he netted Saturday in the Arena to lift the Spokane Chiefs to a 6-4 win over Chilliwack to win their best-of-7 Western Hockey League playoff series.
The lanky Spokane right winger fired home a wrist shot from the left face-off circle with 13 minutes, 5 seconds left in the third period to break a 4-all deadlock and earn himself a hat trick in the bargain.
“Oh, yeah, that was a sweet goal,” he said. “The only one that may have been bigger was the four-overtime goal I scored up in Vancouver.”
Well, if you want to get picky.
The win sends Spokane on to face archrival Tri-City in a best-of-7 series that opens Saturday at the Arena.
Gal’s three-goal effort came at just the right time for the Chiefs, who were without leading scorer Tyler Johnson. Johnson, who scored 115 points during the regular season as well as a league-leading 53 goals, took an elbow to the head in Game 3 of the series and hasn’t played since.
“I hope we can get (Johnson) back for the next series,” Spokane coach Don Nachbaur said. “He’s day-to-day and there’s just no telling when he’ll be back.”
As they have in each game of the series, the Chiefs opened well, taking a 3-1 lead after the first 20 minutes.
Levko Koper got Spokane on the board first 4:58 into the game, enticing Chilliwack goalkeeper Lucas Gore out of his crease, then finding Mitch Holmgren with a sweet pass across the crease that the right winger punched home for a 1-0 lead.
Chilliwack, consistently outshot by Spokane throughout the series, came right back with the first of two power-play goals at the 11:45 mark. Kevin Sundher beat Chiefs goaltender James Reid from in front just as time was running out on a 2-minute elbowing penalty to Brady Brassaart.
Gal scored twice in the first period, staking Spokane to the 3-1 lead, beating Gore with 13:37 left in the period, then adding an unassisted wrap-around goal in the final minute of the period, stuffing the puck between Gore’s legs.
“It gets harder to score the more you play a team in a series like this,” Gal said. “You get to know the stuff each other does.”
The Bruins wasted little time staging a comeback in the second period, notching a quick goal 17 seconds in on a goal by Dylen McKinlay.
Reid turned in a brilliant save on a penalty shot by Sundher, who had taken the puck deep into the slot against the Spokane goalie. Reid knocked the goal off its moorings in the process of making a sliding save.
But that started a quick one-two punch by each team.
Chilliwack added its second power-play goal 14 seconds later, with Robin Soudek collecting the goal. Spokane answered 27 seconds after that, with Holmgren adding his second goal of the game and second of the playoffs on a pass from Koper.
“I was pleased with how we fought back,” Nachbaur said. “We still don’t have that killer instinct. We don’t know how to put teams away. You can talk about it and talk about it, but that’s something you just have to learn for yourself.”
Chilliwack notched its fourth goal to even the score midway through the final period on McKinlay’s second goal of the game, but again, Spokane had the answer.
Gal’s hat trick goal came in the midst of a furious stretch that saw both teams flying up and down the ice, punching and counterpunching.
The Bruins pulled Gore in the final minutes, but even with an extra man on the ice, they could not get a quality shot in on Reid.
Koper picked up the puck near the point and headed up the ice toward the open Chilliwack goal, but was blatantly tripped just inside the Bruins’ blue line and was awarded the goal by referee Trevor Hanson.
Soon after the game ended, Gal said he was ready to get to work against the Ams.
“I think we need to start preparing for that game right now,” he said. “We’re here to play hockey. We need to keep working hard and keep getting better.”
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