April 16, 2012 in Sports

One for road: Chiefs force Game 7

John Blanchette Correspondent
 

Overtime? Of course.

And now there’s some extra time for the Spokane Chiefs.

Teetering on elimination in the Western Hockey League playoffs, the Chiefs live to play a Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals after a stunning goal by fourth-liner Liam Stewart 9:33 into overtime gave them a 4-3 victory over the Tri-City Americans at the Spokane Arena on Monday night.

Stunning? Stewart may have been the most stunned of all.

“I just kind of closed my eyes and hoped for the best,” said the 17-year-old center. “Luckily, the best came to me and it went in.”

It was Spokane’s third overtime victory over the Ams in the last 10 days, and it came after the Chiefs saw a 3-2 lead wiped out by Patrick Holland’s goal not 90 seconds from the horn to end the second period.

That made for a frantic third period, and a nervous overtime.

“I’ve been holding my breath this entire series,” admitted Spokane coach Don Nachbaur.

It’ll all be settled Wednesday night at the Toyota Center in Kennewick, with the winner moving on to the conference finals against the winner of the Kamloops-Portland series – which has been every bit as wild, if not fraught with the same tension.

Overtime is something almost taken for granted when the Chiefs and Ams hook up in the playoffs. Fourteen of their last 21 meetings in the postseason have required extra time.

Nearly as fitting was the fact that the winner was scored by Spokane’s checking line and not the usual snipers.

It was Tyler King getting it started with a lead pass to winger Connor Chartier, who found the rushing Stewart ahead on the left side with a pretty pivoting pass. Tri-City’s Sam Grist was bearing down on Stewart, who managed to get it past Ams goaltender Ty Rimmer top shelf.

Stewart’s teammates mobbed him at the Zamboni gate, and the Ams began the task of regrouping  for Game 7.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to get the shot off,” said Stewart, “but I think the puck was rolling and I just sent it at the net.”

For Nachbaur, the goal was just more validation for keeping all four lines in the mix, even at crucial periods in the game.

“Every guy on my team is important,” he said, “and I try to treat them that way.”

Though it might seem odd, Spokane’s most important stretch may have been the scoreless third period.

“We didn’t lose our composure when Reid Gow stumbled and Holland tied the game,” Nachbaur said. “We stayed with it and here we are with a good victory. We could have fallen apart at that point.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes in this series and been able to cover them up – and when we haven’t, they’ve been magnified by them scoring. But we don’t dwell on it. We don’t hang our heads. We keep getting after it.”

That was true even in the first period, when Spokane’s start was something short of textbook.

Williams took the game’s first shot off his mask and had to shake the stars away. Then just 2:56 into the action, his kick save of a Holland shot went straight to the stick of Derek Ryckman, who put it into the open net for a 1-0 Americans lead.

Momentum changed quickly enough.

Spokane cashed in on the game’s first power-play opportunity, Dominik Uher taking a pass from Blake Gal and wristing home a goal from the top of the left circle at the 5:35 mark.

And just 53 seconds later, Mitch Holmberg came up with the go-ahead goal, his return pass to Mike Aviani after a Tri-City turnover deflecting off the stick of Americans defenseman Mitch Topping and past Rimmer for a 2-1 lead.

The flip-flop was even more pronounced in the second period, when the Ams got a short-handed goal from Justin Feser only to have the Chiefs answer 33 seconds later when Tanner Mort’s hard slap shot was redirected into the net by Steven Kuhn.

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