KENNEWICK – Quite the yo-yo, cat-and-mouse series in which the Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans are tangled.
If anyone expected a different story, they might benefit from researching the history of the rivalry, especially when the Western Hockey League playoffs roll around.
Prior to Game 5 of the best-of-7 Western Conference series on Saturday night – the Chiefs and Americans were each 1-1 at home – with two 3-2 overtime wins for Spokane and a pair of 2-1 wins for Tri-City. And if the series has been back-and-forth in an overall sense, Saturday night encapsulated that pattern.
The teams traded goals, with Tri-City’s Justin Hamonic netting what proved to be the winner late in the second period, and the Americans played a shut-down third period en route to a 5-3 victory in front of 4,587 fans at the Toyota Center.
“Too much time in our end,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “We had some guys that didn’t play real well. It comes down to one shot and then the third period. I think we played the wrong way. We turned the puck over so many times trying to be fancy and I thought we played right into their hands.”
By playing into the Ams’ hands, the Chiefs’ backs are against the wall and their hopes of returning to the Western Conference final against either Portland or Kamloops depend upon a win in Game 6 on Monday in Spokane, and then a Game 7 win if the teams end up meeting back in Kennewick on Wednesday.
“We’ve got to regroup,” Nachbaur said. “Any time your back is against the wall, you’re going to find out what type of character you have. We know we can be better, and we have to be.”
In the first period, the Chiefs looked comparable to the desperate Spokane team that leveled the series at 2-2 on Friday night. The difference was the head-spinning shifts in momentum through the first two periods.
Steve Kuhn put Spokane on the board 4 minutes, 4 seconds into the first, scoring his fourth goal of the playoffs on an assist from Blake Gal, but Patrick Holland scored the equalizer at 13:33 as the teams finished the opening period tied at 1.
In the second, Reid Gow gave Spokane its second lead of the game – cleaning up a rebound during a scramble in front of Ams goalie Ty Rimmer 41 seconds into the period. Again, Tri-City responded with a power-play goal from Adam Hughesman – his sixth of the postseason – and they were tied 2-2.
Kuhn fed Dominik Uher for a shorthanded goal at 11:08 as Spokane enjoyed a tremendous momentum swing, only to see it end 45 seconds later when Mitch Topping tied the game at 3.
“Uher’s goal gave us a huge jump, but right after that we give up a goal and that was over,” Nachbaur said. “That got the crowd into it. Had we gotten through that, who knows what the outcome is?”
The outcome was decided when Hamonic scored his first playoff goal at 16:44. The only goal scored after that was an empty-net goal with 1 minute remaining by Connor Rankin.
“It was two different teams,” Chiefs captain Darren Kramer said. “The game we had (Friday) night, we came out and competed … and tonight we fell into their trap and played their game. We have to find our game in Game 6. If we play our game, I think we’re a hard team to beat. We’re physical and simple.”
Nachbaur tipped his hat again to Chiefs goalie Eric Williams, who finished with 28 saves as the Americans outshot Spokane 33-24.
“He gave us a chance again tonight, just like he has in every game he’s played in the playoffs,” Nachbaur said. “Our team is not based on what happened tonight. Their top guns scored the goals and were on the ice for those key goals.
“You know what – we’re built with four lines. We roll four lines and a couple of lines spent too much time chasing the puck tonight, and we let it comes down to one shot and one period. That can’t happen again.”