These are desperate times in the Western Hockey League – especially for a team anxious to bypass a few rivals in the standings before the rapidly approaching playoffs arrive.
Desperate hockey looks good on the Spokane Chiefs, who scored on their first shift of Sunday night’s game at the Arena and battled their way to a 6-1 win over the Portland Winterhawks in front of 4,315 fans.
“I think the complete level we played with this weekend is what really made the difference,” said Chiefs forward Mitch Holmberg, who finished with two goals and one assist to earn second-star honors. “They’re ahead of us and we want to catch them. This was an important step towards that goal.”
Actually, it was three important steps.
The Chiefs, who are 8-1-1-0 in their last 10 games, have gained significant ground this month on two rival teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings.
The weekend began with a road victory over the second-place Tri-City Americans and wrapped up with back-to-back home wins over the Winterhawks, who visit Spokane (25-14-3-3) again on Friday in what will likely be another physically intense matchup.
“We’re not going to gloat about where we’re at by any means – we have a lot of work to do still,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “We’re in the middle of a really tough month, but we’re making progress and that’s what you want to do.
“We just beat the two best teams in the league, so that’s big.”
The weekend was big enough to pull Spokane within three points of the fourth-place Vancouver Giants and seven points of third-place Portland (30-14-2-1), which hadn’t suffered back-to-back losses since the beginning of December.
Mike Aviani, who finsished with two goals and was named first star of the game, scored 28 seconds into the opening period wristing his eighth goal of the season past Portland goalie Mac Carruth from the low slot. Marek Kalus and Darren Kramer set Aviani up when Kalus, from behind the net, dropped a quick pass back to Kramer, who fed Aviani.
Import forward Dominik Uher set up Liam Stewart for a shorthanded goal on an odd-man rush at 7:40 and Spokane led 2-0 after the first period.
“They capitalized right away and that gave them some momentum and put us back on our heels,” Portland coach Mike Johnston said.
Aviani scored his second goal of the night on a slap shot from inside the right circle 5:07 into the middle period and Holmberg, Spokane’s leading goal scorer with 19, increased the lead to 4-0 at 12:33.
A few minutes later, Holmberg went from sniper to playmaker, setting up Dylan Walchuk’s power-play goal as Spokane took a 5-0 lead and ended Portland goalie Mac Carruth’s night. Walchuk received the feed down low and found plenty of room in front of the crease to go forehand to backhand and score his fourth goal in seven games.
“We’re starting to get some chemistry within our lines,” Holmberg said. “Everybody was working well together out there.”
The physicality of Sunday’s game took a turn for the violent after Portland’s Brad Ross checked Liam Stewart to the back of the head late in the second period. Altogether 114 penalty minutes and one game misconduct were dealt during the game. The game misconduct went to Chiefs captain Darren Kramer who jumped in to defend Stewart.
“To be honest, playing Tri-City on Friday took a lot out of us because it was a high-octane game,” Nachbaur said of Sunday’s overall energy. “The game last night wore us down a little bit too, but I thought our guys were mentally tough tonight and didn’t use any excuses. My hat’s off to our guys – we played hard.”
Portland ended Chiefs goalie Mac Engel’s shutout chance 7:51 into the third period when Sven Bartschi scored on a power play.
Holmberg earned the final goal of the night at 12:48 with a backhanded top-shelf goal on a breakaway out of the neutral zone.
“We’re happy,” Nachbaur said. “We were running on empty all night with the energy level, but we found it. We always try to take steps, and sometimes when you’re learning you take steps back. We came in this weekend scared to death of who we were playing and I think that prepared every guy to play his best.”