KENNEWICK – This was no time for the glass slipper to fall off.
After all, few expected the Spokane Chiefs to be in this position – battling the rival Tri-City Americans in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinal series.
But when time expired at the Toyota Center on Wednesday night, the other shoe dropped and an abrupt and harsh reality sunk in for the Chiefs – who fell 3-2 to the Americans and saw their Western Hockey League playoff run come to an end after Brendan Shinnimin scored the winner 15 minutes, 42 seconds into the third period in front of a crowd of 4,639.
With the Game 7 victory, the Americans move on to face the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Conference championship series, which begins this weekend at Tri-City.
“I don’t know how many people expected it to go this far, eh?” said overage Chiefs captain Darren Kramer, who played the last game of his junior hockey career. “I’m proud of the guys – that’s for sure.”
The top-seeded Americans were one win shy of earning the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s regular-season champion, and all but one game in the seven-game series were decided by one goal. Nine of the last 10 playoff games between the teams were decided by one goal – six in overtime.
“It’s pretty intense,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “It would have been a Cinderella story – where we finished and how young we are in certain areas of our team. We took ‘em to the well and I know that they’re over there saying that wasn’t an easy series.”
But it was a special one, which made it even more unfortunate when Spokane didn’t show up with its best on Wednesday.
The Americans outshot Spokane 48-19, including a 14-4 advantage in the opening period.
The Chiefs took two early shots and then didn’t register another one for another 15 minutes – which ended when Mike Aviani was awarded a penalty shot. He was stopped by Ams goalie Ty Rimmer, but Dominik Uher’s late power-play goal gave the Chiefs a 1-0 lead at intermission.
Tri-City’s Brian Williams tied the game in the second period, but Spokane regained the lead 5:47 into the third when Mitch Holmberg scored his 11th goal of the playoffs.
The Chiefs held on to the lead until Malte Stromwall scored the equalizer at 14:38. Shinnimin struck with the winner – a quality goal that he placed in the far, top corner over Chiefs goalie Eric Williams’ right shoulder – just more than a minute later.
“Hat’s off to them,” Nachbaur said. “They came at us hard and we had a real difficult time tonight for whatever reason. We spent way too much time in our end.”
That was reflected in the lopsided shot count.
“In hindsight, we failed in our game plan tonight, desperately,” Nachbaur said. “We didn’t get pucks out of our end, we didn’t get pucks into their end, we were tentative in certain areas of the game and, flat out, I don’t think we skated at all.”
Yet the Chiefs nearly pulled it off thanks to Williams – who was impressive throughout the duration of the series. Williams made 45 saves on Wednesday.
“If there’s one guy I want to single out, it’s Eric Williams,” Kramer said. “He brought us this far. He carried the entire team on his shoulders and pushed for it the entire way. He stood on his head.”
“Our goalie gave us an all-world performance tonight,” Nachbaur added. “He’s been spectacular all series. We weren’t as crisp tonight as a group … we had too many guys that had off nights, and you can’t have an off night in Game 7.
“You have to be on top of your game, and they were.”