They changed goalies, they changed their efforts in front of their goalie, and they changed history.
When the Spokane Chiefs and Vancouver Giants met in the second round of the Western Hockey League playoffs in 2009, Spokane fell behind, losing the first two games on the road in the best-of-7 series – which is exactly how this year’s first-round set between the teams began.
The Chiefs rallied back in 2009, winning the next three – which, again, is the course the current Western Conference playoff series took heading into Game 6 on Sunday night.
Back then, Vancouver took the Chiefs to a seventh game and knocked Spokane out of the playoffs. This time, the Chiefs returned the favor.
Mike Aviani finished with a goal and two assists, defenseman Corbin Baldwin netted the winning goal, and goalie Eric Williams stopped 26 shots as the Chiefs wrapped up their first-round series 4-2 with a 3-1 win over the Giants in front of 5,521 fans at the Arena.
“We didn’t play well in (Games 1 and 2) … but we stuck with the plan. We implemented a lot of stuff and layed the bricks of the foundation,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said.
“Our guys didn’t stop believing,” he added. “We went through some adversity … but we stuck with it and I think we were rewarded for it by winning the series.”
That adversity included losing their top defenseman – Brenden Kichton – to a broken jaw in Game 1, allowing 14 goals on starting goalie Mac Engel in the first two games, and playing without captain Darren Kramer on Sunday after the league suspended him for a game because he left the penalty box prematurely late in Game 5.
The Chiefs will now face their long-standing rivals, the top-seeded Tri-City Americans, in a Western Conference semifinal, beginning Friday in Kennewick.
“We’ll start focusing on the next game after tonight,” Nachbaur said. “We want to enjoy this tonight.”
And there certainly is plenty for Nachbaur and the Chiefs to enjoy based on Sunday’s performance.
Williams, as they say, stood on his head between the pipes for Spokane. After replacing Engel in Game 2, he started the final four games of the series for Spokane and stopped 96 of the 102 shots he faced for a .941 save percentage.
“He really sparked a change for us,” said Baldwin, whose slapshot from the blue line with 3.4 seconds remaining in the second period counted as the winner for Spokane. “But at the same time we knew we had to play better in front of him. That was the first thing that needed to change.”
And it did.
“Can’t talk enough about (Williams’) contribution, but our team played better in front of our goalie … and he reaps the benefits of that,” said Nachbaur. “He made some outstanding saves in every game he was in the net. You’re not going to win in the playoffs without good goaltending and he provided that for us.”
And Aviani provided a lot of the scoring – both in the series and on Sunday.
After Vancouver’s Cain Franson put the Giants on the board 1 minute, 40 seconds into the opening period, Aviani beat Vancouver defenseman Wes Vannieuwenhuizen for a one-on-one chance against Giants’ goalie Adam Morrison – a Philadelphia Flyers prospect.
Aviani went forehand to backhand from close range, lifting the shot past Morrison to score the equalizer at 15:17 in the first. The center finished with three points on Sunday and leads the Chiefs in postseason scoring with two goals and nine assists.
After Baldwin gave Spokane a 2-1 lead late in the second, Mitch Holmberg scored his team-leading sixth goal of the playoffs 6:26 into the final period to up the lead.
“We made some important changes after those first two games and it ended well for us,” said Baldwin, who was a part of the 2009 series.
“We’re proud of how we played.”