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Chiefs recall classic playoff series against Tri-City

Thu., April 7, 2011, 7:51 p.m.

Spokane's Tyler Johnson skates away with puck from Tri-City's Colton Yellow Horn during the third game of the teams epic Western Conference Championship Series Monday in 2001.  (File / The Spokesman Review)
Spokane's Tyler Johnson skates away with puck from Tri-City's Colton Yellow Horn during the third game of the teams epic Western Conference Championship Series Monday in 2001. (File / The Spokesman Review)

There were three smiles, best explained by Tyler Johnson.

“That series was epic, to say the least,” he said.

Johnson was referring to the Spokane Chiefs’ 2008 showdown with the Tri-City Americans, a to-the-limit, best-of-7 series that featured five games decided in overtime, three in double overtime, and 74 minutes, 19 seconds of extra time before the Chiefs prevailed.

It’s a great memory for three Spokane veterans of that series, linemates Johnson and Levko Koper, who were 17, and Jared Cowen, then a 16-year-old defenseman.

“The competitiveness,” Cowen, now the captain, recalled. “I just remember doing whatever it takes to keep that overtime goal from going into the net. I think everyone had the same mentality. Obviously, it paid off in the end and it was one of the best feelings.”

“I just think of overtime,” Koper said. “Every game felt (so tense), low scoring, one mistake is a game-changer. I remember Game 7 and sending the other team home.”

No doubt that other team remembers as these two rivals meet in the playoffs for the first time since then, starting Saturday in the Arena.

But while the memory brought a smile to the players, Spokane coach Don Nachbaur had a heavy sigh and whispered, “Oh, gosh,” when asked about his memories. Nachbaur was coaching the Americans back then.

“Just the emotion of winning and losing – watching a team walk off the ice with what you wanted,” he said. “But a lot of respect. I think they had the same respect for us that we had for them winning the series.”

Americans forwards Kruise Reddick, Mason Wilgosh and Adam Hughesman and defenseman Tyler Schmidt were also on the wrong end.

“I remember a lot of it,” said Reddick, the Tri-City captain who ended a pair of games with overtime goals. “What stands out most is how hard it was to lose. But it was special to be part of a series like that.”

That series was the Western Conference championship. This time around it’s a second-round series.

“They definitely pushed our limits, but at the same time we had Vancouver right before that,” Johnson said. “I thought that was a great test for our hockey team. It was a tough series. We really had to man up, so when we had to play (Tri-City) we were more ready and capable of handling them.”

The first two games in Kennewick were 1-0 thrillers, decided early in the second overtime. The Chiefs won the first one on Ondrej Roman’s goal at 48 seconds into the fifth period. The Americans evened the series on Drew Hoff’s goal at 4:17.

“There’s definitely added pressure when the season’s on the line,” Koper said of playoff hockey. “It’s in the back of your mind this could be your last couple of games, so you try to leave everything on the ice.

“Then in overtime it’s defense first. You don’t want to make the mistake. Sometimes teams play really conservative, that’s how you get to a second overtime. It usually comes down to a single mistake, a turnover.”

Back at the Arena, the Chiefs regained control in the only game that wasn’t tied in the third period, winning 2-0. But Tri-City got that right back when Reddick scored a short-handed goal 2:07 into overtime for a 3-2 win.

The Chiefs got their second double-overtime win in Tri-City, 4-3, when Judd Blackwater scored at 2:28. The Chiefs had a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Spokane. But Reddick come up big again, scoring a power-play goal at 4:39 of OT for a 2-1 win to force Game 7.

“You have to be ready for the ups and downs and expect anything,” Cowen said.

Fittingly, the finale was tied at 1 entering the third period. But Blackwater scored just 16 seconds in and the Chiefs went on to a 4-1 win.

“It’s about character,” Nachbaur said. “You just saw that rise to the top on both sides. It’s was a battle. … No team was going to quit. There was not one guy going to lay down. Both teams battled injuries and had those guys who were willing to play.

“Wining on opposition ice showed character. It was just a series for character.”

Spokane went on to steamroll Lethbridge 4-0 for the Western Hockey League title and carried that momentum into the Memorial Cup, winning all four games, the first in overtime, the last three by allowing just one goal in each.

“Either team could have won that series, it was that close,” Cowen said. “I think if they would have won they would have gone to the (Memorial) Cup, too. We just had that winning attitude and never quit mentality.”

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