PORTLAND – If Portland was a little rusty with a weeklong layoff between playoff games, how stale could Brady Brassart and Marek Kalus be by being out two weeks or more?
Brassart and Kalus, fourth-liners in the reworked Spokane lineup, scored on their first shift to jump-start the Chiefs to a 2-1 win over the Portland Winterhawks in the opening game of their best-of-7 Western Hockey League conference championship series at the Rose Garden Friday night.
“Against all odds,” Spokane coach Don Nachbaur said. “From the start of the season … we kept saying it’s unlikely guys that’s been the bread and butter of our team. Everything we’re all about we used to our advantage, the hard work, the compete. We were good.”
The crowd of 7,642 hadn’t settled in when the Chiefs scored. Kalus came down the left wing and fired a shot that went off the far pad of goalie Mac Carruth right to Brassart for the rebound goal at 2:11.
After that it was steady and sometimes spectacular goaltending from James Reid, a smothering defense and Levko Koper’s power-play goal in the second period that let Spokane claim home-ice advantage despite the absence of leading scoring Tyler Johnson, sitting out a one-game suspension.
“We’re not naïve enough to think it’s over,” Nachbaur said. “It’s one game. This team here is explosive. They battled right to the end. They had me on pins and needles to the closing seconds.”
After pulling Carruth in the final minute, Ryan Johansen scored with 24 seconds to play. The Chiefs made one of their rare defensive mistakes just after Koper just missed the open net from a sharp angle.
Game 2 is at Portland Sunday at 5 p.m. with Game 3 in Spokane on Wednesday.
“In playoff hockey the team that scores the first definitely has the advantage,” Portland coach Mike Johnston said. “We can be better and Sunday they’re going to be better with Johnson back.”
Dominik Uher missed the net on a breakaway in the opening seconds of the game but it didn’t take long for the Spokane Chiefs to connect.
Kalus had played in just one playoff game – the final one against Chilliwack – and Brassart had sat since playing in the first game against Tri-City in the second round.
“Right off the bat, it was the first shift,” Brassart said. “I think we were both real excited to be back in the lineup. We just sparked right away and got us on the board.
“It felt good. I knew coming back in I just have to keep my game simple, bring some energy, get my feet back under me.”
The Chiefs made it 2-0 with a power-play goal at 4:25 of the second period. It took eight seconds for Steve Kuhn to win the faceoff, Uher to pass the puck back from the right circle to Brenden Kichton at the point. Kichton sent it along the blue line to Jared Cowen, who fed Kuhn in the left circle for a touch-pass to Koper parked in front of the net.
And the Chiefs never let up. They held the Winterhawks to eight shots in the period and then in the third came out flying with a 17-4 advantage until Portland got the final six. The final count was 42-28 after just a 13-10 difference after one.
“They’ve got a lot of talent up front and they have some good offensive defensemen,” Reid said. “We knew they’d be coming, they good chances. You just have to stay focused the whole 60 minutes.”
Johnston said, “Spokane is a good defensive team, they’re sound. They don’t give you a lot of second-chance opportunities so you have to take advantage of the ones you have. Loose puck battles, they won more than we did tonight.”
And it was with all four lines altered.
“Every series is going to be different; every game is going to be different,” Nachbaur said. “We pulled (Mitch) Holmberg tonight and Brady went in. We needed his size and he played really well. That line, with Kalus and (Matt) Marantz gave us a dimension that was good for our hockey team. With Johnny out I had to find a center and Matty stepped into that role.”
Kalus now has a goal and assist in his two playoff games and Brassart has a goal and two assists in his seven.
“I thought we played well,” Brassart said. “We got pucks out and pucks in and we wore the other team down. Marek and Matty both read the game really well so it’s easy to be successful.”