It would seem like the stage is set for another epic series as the Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans square off in the Western Hockey League playoffs.
The rivals, who begin a best-of-7 second-round series Saturday night in the Arena, met 12 times during the regular season with the Chiefs winning seven.
It is their first playoff meeting since their memorable 2008 seven-game battle in the Western Conference finals, won by the Chiefs 4-3 with five games going into overtime.
“It’s going to be close to the same as 2008, low scoring and probably a couple of overtimes,” Spokane wing Levko Koper said. “We’re both hard-working teams.”
“I don’t expect it to be much different,” Americans captain Kruise Reddick said. “Spokane and Tri-City in the playoffs, there’s not much more you can ask for as a hockey fan.”
“I expect it to be hard,” Spokane coach Don Nachbaur said. “They’re a good team. I have a lot of respect for what they do. They’re skilled up front, they have a tough back end and the goaltending is solid. They really have no weak links. We’ll have to be at our best.”
There weren’t many epic games during the regular season, as only four were decided by two goals or less. Both teams won once by five goals. Although the Chiefs outscored the Americans 51-39, complicating comparisons was the extensive use of backup goalies.
With James Reid and Drew Owsley out for about a month in the second half of the season, backups played significant minutes. During that stretch, when the teams were meeting weekly, Spokane put together a five-game winning streak.
While Reid was out, Mac Engel went 4-3 for the Chiefs. Owsley was 5-2 for the Americans, but his backups were 0-5.
“You can’t take a shift off against these guys,” Spokane forward Steve Kuhn said. “We know how good of team they are and how hard they are going to compete. If we don’t bring our ‘A’ game every shift, then they’re going to bury it against us.”
“It’s going to take a team game,” Reddick said. “They come with a lot of speed and the defense doesn’t give up much. If you have giveaways they end up in your net.”
Discipline is also critical, because the Chiefs had the top power play in the league while the Americans were second. Spokane was also the top penalty-killing team, but the Americans were in the bottom half of the league.
In a 4-0 sweep of Vancouver in the opening round, Owsley had a 1.38 goals-against average. Reid had a shutout streak that extended longer than two games as Spokane defeated Chilliwack 4-1 in the first round, losing Game 3 on home ice. The Chiefs gave up a three-goal lead in the loss and almost did the same thing a night later.
“Chilliwack was a good team,” Kuhn said. “They definitely held their own. I thought we let off the pedal a little bit and Chilliwack took it to us when we did that. If we do that against (Tri-City), it’s going to be a pretty negative outcome.”
“We feel confident,” Nachbaur said. “Obviously, you would like to win four straight, but losing was good for us. As much as you don’t like to lose, it builds your character. We had to regroup and come back. That’s what the playoffs are all about.”
The Chiefs have had a week off, the Americans 10 days.
“They play hard for a full 60 minutes,” Chiefs forward Tyler Johnson said. “They’re like us in a lot of ways. It’s going to be a good matchup. Both teams’ confidence is pretty high. With this rest it’s going to be good.”
No one benefits more than Johnson, who missed Spokane’s last two wins after taking a shot to the head. He’s a key figure in the series because he had a league-best 53 goals in the regular season and was second in the scoring race with 115 points. Against Tri-City he had 11 goals and 21 points in 11 games.
Brendan Shinniman led the Americans with 96 points, matching Johnson’s 62 assists, despite missing a dozen games. He had 18 points against the Chiefs.
Adam Hughesman led Tri-City with 39 goals and had 81 points, but he also missed a dozen games. The Chiefs counter with Levko Koper, who had 82 points (32 goals, 50 assists), 18 against Tri-City.
The teams split four early-season games. Tri-City tweaked its roster significantly before the early January trade deadline, picking up first-round NHL draft pick Carter Ashton from Regina and defensemen Matt MacKenzie, a Buffalo Sabres draft pick, and Paul Sohor from Calgary and Everett, respectively.
Ashton, a youth teammate of Spokane captain Jared Cowen, had 44 points in 33 games with the Ams, 71 points in 62 games for the season. Three other players had at least 60 points.
“They have good ‘D’ and a good goalie, but I think their forwards are their strong point,” Cowen said. “They have some skilled guys and when they’re sending the puck around fast, they’re hard to defend.”
Spokane had eight players with at least 20 goals, including defenseman Brenden Kichton.
“They’re a hard, physical team,” Kichton said. “We can’t turn pucks over, they feast off that. … They play really well at home. It’s going to be tough.”
Although the Chiefs had 10 more points in the regular season to secure home-ice advantage, venue scheduling is making this a 2-3-2 series instead of a traditional 2-2-1-1-1.
“I think the three games there in a row kind of helps them out,” Cowen said. “(But) we play there quite a bit, it’s almost like a second home arena.”
Game 2 is Sunday in the Arena. The next three games in Kennewick are spread over seven days.