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Chiefs’ comeback eerie and complete

Spokane Chiefs hockey.

There’s something about a haunting, solo violin on the national anthem – even if it classes up the joint – that doesn’t say “hockey.”

Besides, how does the crowd know when to give the “Chiefs!” shout? (Answer: it doesn’t.)

But, oh, did everything else say “hockey” Tuesday night at the Spokane Arena.

Shouted it. Screamed it, actually.

And speaking of haunting …

The Western Hockey League’s top goal-scorer and hometown favorite – and a finalist for the Most Sportsmanlike Player award – is assessed a game misconduct and shooed off the ice in the opening period, in the only playoff series that’s had any serious drama to it at all. His teammates promptly dig themselves a three-goal hole that appears certain to force a deciding seventh game, which likely as not would be played without the aforementioned star.

The atmosphere couldn’t have been more solemn inside the ol’ Howard Street Crypt.

So just how did the Spokane Chiefs get from there to the most improbable, audible, sensational and – OK – sublimely preposterous finish perhaps in their history?

“This time of year,” maintained their coach, Don Nachbaur, “it’s about will.”

So the Chiefs willed themselves not just through that devastating penalty and ejection of Tyler Johnson and not just through the three-goal deficit, but also through the significant buzzkill of having their own lead wiped out by a 5-on-3 goal. In the end, they came up 5-4 overtime winners over the team it’s the most fun to beat, the Tri-City Americans, to advance to the WHL’s Western Conference finals against the Portland Winterhawks.

“I was,” said winger Collin Valcourt, “in amazement.”

It was Valcourt who squeezed the last, decisive bit of will out of the tube. In the middle of a Spokane line change in overtime’s seventh minute, he could have routinely dumped the puck into the offensive zone and peeled back to the bench. But he saw he was one-on-one against Tri-City defenseman Paul Sohor and found a narrow alley along the boards to steer it toward the corner.

“I just fired it back on the net,” he said, “and it bounced out in front.”

Actually, he bounced it off Ams goalie Drew Owsley and onto the stick of Levko Koper – just on the ice – who rammed in the dagger that sent the visitors to their knees.

But given what happened before, that was almost humdrum.

In a way that only seems to happen in hockey, the fates of these two teams changed in a split-second – when Johnson and Tri-City’s Brendan Shinnimin collided at mid-ice late in the first period and Johnson was hit with a 5-minute kneeing penalty, and tossed.

The Chiefs were already down 1-0. The notion of killing off a five-minute disadvantage without falling further behind and coming back without their 53-goal scorer seemed daunting – and only got bigger when Spokane indeed surrendered two more goals six minutes apart in the second period.

Up in his press box perch, Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz saw the scene unfold and “felt sick to my stomach – Tyler’s not that type of player.”

Johnson, dutifully, owned up.

“I was just trying to make contact and guess my knee stuck out a bit,” he said. “I definitely didn’t need to do it and I feel terrible about it.”

And he immediately knew the enormity of it.

“The thought went through my head,” said Johnson, who watched the TV broadcast in the trainer’s room, “that it could be my last shift as a Chief. But I put it aside and just worried about the team – and they bailed me out.”

Bailed? They carpet bombed. The rat-a-tat of third-period goals – four in just under nine minutes – had the once-deathly Arena in delirium, and even the Ams’ tying goal couldn’t completely stem the emotion.

Speltz saw it on two levels. He pointed out that the Chiefs had rallied in their opening series against Chilliwack when Johnson was hurt in the second period of Game 3 and missed the next two.

“Now, at first, we weren’t ready for that – we give up three goals,” Speltz said. “This time, our guys had played and won without him. It’s funny how things maybe happen for a reason.”

And sometimes it’s about where they happen.

“You say home ice doesn’t matter,” Speltz said, “but in games like this when you get going, it matters. The crowd was awesome.”

But not any more so than the hockey club.

“I told the guys I was as proud as I’ve been in any game I’ve been involved in,” said Nachbaur. “We had every reason to mope and shut ’er down and look forward to tomorrow. Our guys said no.”

No losing, no tomorrow – and no weeping violins for the Spokane Chiefs.


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