KENNEWICK – They know the top scorers, the top playmakers and the top defensemen in each other’s lineups.
After meeting a dozen times in the regular season, the Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans know nearly everything about one another. There just aren’t many surprises left.
The least surprising part of Game 1 of the best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series between the rival teams, however, was their need to spend just a little more time on the ice together – even if Mitch Holmberg made sure it wasn’t much.
Holmberg scored 1 minute, 6 seconds into overtime on Friday night for his team-leading seventh goal of the postseason and Spokane won the series opener, beating the Americans 3-2 in Western Hockey League playoff action in front of 4,351 fans at the Toyota Center.
Spokane – which defeated Vancouver in six games in the first round – and Tri-City have gone to overtime in 12 of the last 17 playoff games against one another.
“Our guys are understanding what we have to do to win,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “Part of (winning) is getting some breaks along the way, too. I wouldn’t say we had that early in the Vancouver series, but we caught some later and I thought we caught a couple tonight, too.”
Beyond the handful of breaks for the Chiefs, though, was solid play.
Goalie Eric Williams remained undefeated in the playoffs, picking up his fifth straight win by turning aside 30 of 32 Tri-City shots. Williams was helped by solid play in front of him, perhaps best displayed by veteran defenseman Corbin Baldwin, who played a physical game and blocked several shots on the penalty kill.
That was especially important, considering the Chiefs found themselves down a man seven times.
“We had a lot of practice tonight, didn’t we?” Nachbaur joked.
“There was a lot that I wasn’t sure on,” Nachaur added in regard to a couple of questionable calls. “But you have to battle through circumstances … and we did that.”
The Chiefs first had to battle through an early deficit.
The Americans took a 1-0 lead 8:05 into the opening period when captain Brendan Shinnimin scored his fourth goal of the playoffs. Justin Feser fired in a shot from the point that deflected off Shinnimin’s stick and over Williams’ glove.
Mike Aviani, who leads the Chiefs in postseason scoring, finally got Spokane on the board 16:22 into the second. After trying to stuff the puck in at the left post, Aviani saw an opening, wrapped around the back of the net and squeezed a shot by Ams goalie Ty Rimmer.
At 2:39 in the third period, Aviani and Holmberg set up Darren Kramer’s third goal of the playoffs, giving Spokane a 2-1 lead. But Mason Wilgosh answered for the Americans at 14:34 to force the 2-2 tie.
“It’s not much of shocker that we went into overtime,” Holmberg said. “Rimmer made a couple of unbelievable saves – I don’t know how he got them. Same with our goalie. Both teams were playing really hard, and it swung our way.”
Which, of course, was the result of Holmberg swinging his stick.
After Mitch Topping turned the puck over in the neutral zone, Holmberg led a 3-on-1 Spokane rush into Tri-City’s zone, where he scored from the right lane.
“I was just hoping to get a shot on net and hopefully go for a rebound,” Holmberg said. “But it turned out for the best.”