The Western Hockey League season has come down to a dozen games for the Spokane Chiefs, with eight of them at the Arena, and there couldn’t be more intrigue.
Going into tonight’s home game with Seattle, the Chiefs have a one-point lead over Portland in the chase for the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Portland, however, has played two fewer games.
Tri-City is six points back with three games in hand, which means a weak stretch run by the Chiefs could drop them to the fourth seed since the B.C. Division winner automatically gets the No. 2 seed.
Adding to the excitement are the accomplishments of the Chiefs’ Tyler Johnson.
Johnson, a Central Valley graduate, is just three points from the 100-point milestone and second in the scoring race, one point behind Linden Vey of Medicine Hat.
No Chief has reached the 100-point milestone since Ryan Duthie (126), Maxim Bets (116) and Valeri Bure (102) in 1994, putting 14 names on the list.
“It hasn’t been done for a while, so to be a part of that is a really cool scene,” Johnson said. “It’s been great this season, I’ve had a lot of fun. For it to be my 20-year-old season is unbelievable. My team has been fantastic for me. They’ve helped me out a lot and I owe a lot to them.”
The only Chief to lead the league in points was Ray Whitney (185) in 1991.
“It’s something in back of my head I’m always working towards,” Johnson said. “At the same time I have to worry about winning games. … Personal success will follow team success.”
Led by Levko Koper’s five goals and nine points and Brenden Kichton’s six goals and eight points, Spokane has won four straight road games following a loss at lowly Seattle. The last two wins were at Tri-City, where the Chiefs hadn’t won this season.
“We always felt we were capable of doing it, we just had to play our game,” Johnson said. “These last two times we played a physical game, nose-to-nose hockey, and it turned out well.”
He doesn’t expect the team to overlook the Thunderbirds, who won 3-1 10 days ago.
“We took them a little too lightly,” he said. “That game really hurt us in the standings. That’s a game that we wish we really had back. … I don’t think there’s going to be a letdown because we know what’s at stake.”
The Chiefs are the highest-scoring team in the league. Their 259 goals are the most since 2000, when the Chiefs had 272. At the current pace of 4.31 goals a game, they could reach 310, the most since 1996.
All but two players who returned from last season have reached career highs for points and those two are scoring points at a better pace than they did last year. The 11 players with 10 goals matches the depth of the 2008 Memorial Cup champions.
A lot of the credit goes to the league’s best power play. It took the players a while to adapt to new coach Don Nachbaur’s power play.
“With Don’s system we have lot of options, a lot of choices that we’re able to make,” Johnson explained. “We’ve been able to move the puck really well, we don’t have one guy that’s designated as a shooter like some power plays do. Because of that all of us can score, it creates a better opportunity for everybody.”