So much of life in the Western Hockey League is a highway – but in this instance it’s the 144-mile stretch of highway that’s helped define the hockey.
It’s not much different when the postseason approaches – and as the league championship series draws closer, you can almost feel the tension blowing in from the East Division.
But before any clashing between the East and West happens this year, fans will be treated to a second consecutive best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series between the historic WHL rivals – the fifth-seeded Spokane Chiefs and top-seeded Tri-City Americans.
The two teams begin play with Games 1 and 2 Friday and Saturday at the Toyota Center in Kennewick, before turning around for Games 3 and 4 in Spokane at the Arena.
“It’s always especially intense just because of the rivalry,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “We play each other 12 times a year (in the regular season), and we know each other pretty well. You play a team that many times, and you know all of their habits. You know what makes one another tick.
“But the rivalry and the excitement of the history between these two teams is more about the fans.”
In its 23rd year of existence, Spokane leads the regular-season series 143-126-1-5 with 13 ties.
This season the Chiefs are 4-8 against the Americans.
The Americans outshot the Chiefs by an average of two shots, each team scored 12 power-play goals – the Ams in 56 chances and Spokane in 65.
“We know their systems, we know their best players, and they know ours,” Nachbaur said. “Their might be a twist or a turn here and there, but I don’t expect there to be a lot of surprises.
“I do expect it to be intense, and I fully expect that we can beat them if we stick to our systems and compete.”
Coming off a 4-2 opening-round series against the Vancouver Giants, in which the Chiefs won their last four games, Spokane has momentum heading into tonight’s opener and has also had less time off than the Ams – who swept Everett in the first round.
“We haven’t had as much time off, and that’s a good thing in the playoffs because you want to stay active,” Nachbaur said. “You get seven to 10 days off in the season and it’s a shock to your system when you get into a game again. The intensity is much different. You can’t simulate it in a practice.”
The Chiefs and Americans are facing each other in a “best-of” series for the sixth time, with Spokane not losing to the Americans in the playoffs since 1995.
The Chiefs earned a six-game series win last year by winning the last two games of the series in overtime, and in 2008, the teams went the distance when they met in the conference championship series.
The epic series went into overtime five times, and double overtime three times. Spokane went on to win the WHL championship and the Memorial Cup.
In 2002, Spokane won in five games and in 2000, Spokane swept the Americans in the first round on their way to the Western Conference title.
Nachbaur was the Americans coach in 2008.
“I still know a lot of the players because their best players were 16 or 17 when I had them,” he said. “There is always that connection. … I’m sure they want to do well against their old coach.”