By every measure the Spokane Chiefs are overwhelming favorites against the Chilliwack Bruins as the Western Hockey League playoffs get under way Friday night.
The standings alone suggest Spokane should make short work of the Bruins. The Chiefs finished with 102 points, 28 more than Chilliwack and went 3-1 against the Bruins.
Spokane scored 310 goals in 72 games, tied for the most in the league and 83 more than the Bruins, while giving up 193, second in the league and 62 less than the Bruins. No team had a bigger difference between goals-for and goal-against than Spokane’s 117.
The Chiefs had the league’s best power play and penalty kill during the regular season, Chilliwack checked in at sixth and 13th, respectively
But the Bruins have basketball.
Because the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament is in Spokane this weekend the Chiefs won’t get to cash in on their home-ice advantage until later in the best-of-7 series. The teams meet Friday and Saturday in Chilliwack before returning to Spokane for the next three. The Chiefs have home games on Wednesday and Thursday and if needed, next Saturday. Game 6 would be in Chilliwack with Game 7 in the Arena.
It’s not like that’s the only thing the Bruins have going for them.
“We know we can’t take them lightly,” Chiefs defenseman Brenden Kichton said. “They’re a good, physical, hard-nosed team. They have guys that can score. Their top line is crucial to their success, we’ve got to shut those guys down. (Goalie Lucas) Gore made a lot of stops against us last time. We have to find away to get pucks through him.”
Their top line is potent, led by Ryan Howse, who was second in the league with 51 goals. He finished with 83 points, Roman Horak (26 goals, 52 assists) had 78 and Robin Soudek (25, 32) had 57. And that still leaves Kevin Sundher (24, 52), who had 76 points.
“The one thing we’ve talked to our players about is, what comes to mind when you think of Spokane?” Chilliwack coach Marc Habscheid said to The Chilliwack Progress. “The first thing is how hard they work. We can control how hard we work too and we want to make sure we don’t let the Chiefs outwork us.”
And Gore showed he could steals games after making an astounding 77 saves when the teams met recently.
But the Chiefs won that last game 2-1 in a shootout, proving they have more than capable goaltending. James Reid won that game and sits fourth in the league with a 2.57 goals-against average, well clear of Gore’s 3.29. The game after that, Chiefs backup Mac Engel blanked Seattle 5-0, lowering his GGA to 2.30, good for second in the league.
Looking for one more edge, Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur wouldn’t tip his hand on who would start, calling it a game-day decision.
The Chiefs counter the Bruins top line with Tyler Johnson’s line. The Spokane native was the league leader in goals with 53 and finished one point shy in the league scoring race with 115. Wing Levko Koper had his best year with 82 points (32, 50) and Dominic Uher, the usual right wing, had 60 (21, 39).
The second line has three of the Chiefs’ eight 20-goal scorers, Steve Kuhn (20), Blake Gal (23) and Matt Marantz (20) with another 20-goal scorer, Anthony Bardaro (24), centering the third line.
And on the back end there’s Kichton, who had 23 goals and 81 points, tied for the most by a defenseman, and captain Jared Cowen, who had 18 goals.
Despite the overwhelming numbers, the Chiefs remain respectful.
“They’re just a hard-working team,” captain Jared Cowen said. “They have good players on the first line, they hit us pretty hard and they’re a good forechecking team like us,”
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