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Chiefs look to wrap it up

Spokane one win from WHL conference finals

It’s too early to drop the Spokane Chiefs’ playoff series with the Tri-City Americans into the epic category but it is certainly working in that direction.

After two straight overtime games, the series is heating up with the Chiefs taking a 3-2 lead into the Arena tonight for the sixth game in the best-of-7 Western Hockey League showdown.

“So far it’s been as advertised for me,” Chiefs’ general manager Tim Speltz said. “It’s been a very good series.”

It started with the Americans winning the first game in Spokane, and after the teams split two in the Arena, the Chiefs won two of three in Tri-Cities.

In Game 4 on Thursday, the Americans pulled out a 4-3 win in the second overtime, and Sunday night James Reid’s save and Blake Gal’s goal in overtime put the Chiefs back on top.

“If there is a difference, I think the goaltender that’s played the best that team has won on any given night,” Spletz said. “Other than that, there’s not a lot to separate these two teams. Both are very well prepared, both are well coached, both teams have made adjustments from game-to-game and also on the fly during games. That’s what payoffs are. If you don’t do that you get left behind and for sure no one has gotten left behind here.”

Even though the Chiefs had 2-0 leads in the second period of the past two games, Spletz said there was no reason to panic.

“I don’t think a team is going to dominate for 60 minutes. There’s not enough separation,” he said. “Any time we make a mistake they capitalize. Not necessarily with a goal, but with a penalty or a chance. They make you pay for your mistakes. Both teams are similar that way.”

The Chiefs scored in the first minute of Sunday’s game after an Americans turnover, and made it 2-0 early in the second by converting an odd-man rush. Tri-City’s first goal in the third was on a three-on-two.

Gal was penalized early in overtime and the only reason he got to score the winner 6 seconds after the penalty expired was because Reid made a glove save on Carter Ashton.

“It’s a game of mistakes,” Spletz said. “You’re going to make mistakes, but if you make a second mistake and a third, chances are it’s not going to go good for you.”

The Chiefs struggled to hold leads against Chilliwack in their first-round series, but Spletz said that was a different situation.

“It was two different series,” he explained. “The one with Tyler Johnson, we had pretty good control. Then we had a series without Tyler Johnson (injured in the third period of Game 3). We played two games and two periods with Johnny, then played two games, a period and an overtime without him. To lose a player that’s been a big part of your team, we didn’t adjust to that as well as we could have. We got through it, we won. Give credit to our guys.”

That experience is paying off. Not that balance is anything new, but the Chiefs are getting contributions throughout their lineup with 20 different players picking up a point – 14 of them with goals – in the 10 playoff games.

Gal leads in goals with six, three of them winners. Defenseman Jared Cowen has 10 points, nine on assists. Steve Kuhn has five goals and five assists. Despite missing two games, Johnson has five goals. And a pair of fourth-line wingers, Darren Kramer and Mitch Holmberg, have four goals each.

Maybe that depth can keep this series from becoming epic.

“It sure could be, but until it’s over you can’t say,” Spletz said. “When you look at it, if ‘08 wouldn’t have had Game 7, it wouldn’t have been as epic. … The drama of the ’08 series with the double overtime games made that one unique. For me, this one isn’t much different than that without the extra time.”