For a Western Hockey League season built on hard work and passion, the Spokane Chiefs went down quietly in their last game.
After jumping to a quick 2-0 lead, Spokane showed very little spark as the Portland Winterhawks rallied for a convincing 6-3 victory Monday night at the Arena to wrap up the best-of-7 Western Conference finals in six games.
“It’s terribly disappointing when you get to Game 6 at home and don’t get a better performance out of your team,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “The way we played tonight was no resemblance to the way we played all year long. We didn’t compete nearly hard enough. Maybe the process wore us down.”
The Chiefs were outshot 38-27, a stat they dominated most of the season as they pressured teams relentlessly in piling up more than 100 points in the regular season.
“We give them a lot of credit for the way they played all season,” Portland forward Craig Cunningham said. “If there’s a team that plays their system to a T, it’s those guys. Tonight they looked tired. … We kept coming at them in waves.”
The Chiefs scored with 16 seconds remaining in the second period to carry a 3-3 tie into what would be their final period, largely because they came up with just six shots.
“I thought we had momentum,” Spokane forward Tyler Johnson said. “Their fourth goal really got to us. It shouldn’t have been. I wish things could have changed.”
Troy Rutkowski’s goal at 5:22 started a final wave from the talented Winterhawks, who face Kootenay for the WHL championship beginning Friday in Portland.
“They played strong. They make you make mistakes and they capitalize on those mistakes,” Nachbaur said. “That’s not the way we played all year long. We got pucks to the net all year long but tonight we chose to make plays. We’re not that type of team. That’s why we lost.
Ty Rattie scored at 14:07 to almost completely silence the crowd of 5,218, which began a soft, sustained cheer after Nino Niederreiter wrapped it up with 2:19 to play.
“Their big guns got it done,” Nachbaur said. “Their high-end guys were the backbreakers against us in this series. … It’s a tough one. You always feel comfortable if you lose if you pour out your passion and lay it on the line. I don’t think we did that. I think that’s what hurt us.”
The Chiefs got off to a quick start with Marek Kalus depositing a rebound from an Anthony Bardaro shot past Mac Carruth 2:32 into the game. Exactly a minute later, Mike Aviani poked in a free puck.
Portland countered with a gift goal by Sven Bartschi at 8:17. Corbin Baldwin blocked Cunningham’s shot from the right circle, but the puck bounced high in the air and Bartschi deflected it in with his chest.
There was a third straight reviewed goal, this one disallowed, at 17:06 when it was determined Brad Ross kicked the puck past Spokane goalie James Reid.
Portland continued with the pressure in the second period with Ryan Johansen, who scored in five of the games to earn MVP honors, finding a loose puck out front and netting it just under the crossbar with Reid sitting down to tie the game at 9:38. Fifty seconds later, it was Cunningham picking up a loose puck and spinning around to slide a backhander just inside the post.
The Chiefs broke through with Levko Koper, after getting clobbered in front of the net, getting up just in time to snag a rebound of a Brenden Kitchton shot and flip it in to tie the game at 3 heading into the third.
“It was a long year,” captain Jared Cowen said. “Some guys put in a lot of minutes, had a lot of responsibility. You can’t expect to produce as much as you like every game. I think we accomplished a lot this year.”
Just not in their last opportunity.
“We came out pretty good with those two quick goals but they came out harder the rest of the game,” Reid said. “I think you could kind of see it with some of the guys. It’s been a hard year. … It’s too bad it’s over now.”