This time of year, Western Hockey League players begin to think of every game as a playoff game.
“It’s a grind,” goalie Mac Engel said following the Spokane Chiefs’ practice at the Arena on Thursday. “Teams are trying to get into playoff shape and move up in the standings. You really can’t ever take a night off in this league, but that becomes even (truer) when the second half hits.”
Riding a four-game winning streak, the Chiefs (26-14-3-3) return to the Arena tonight to host the Portland Winterhawks (31-14-2-1) – a team looking to avenge rare back-to-back losses they suffered when they visited Spokane last weekend.
Spokane has been playing solid hockey since the winter break in December – which marked the midway point of the season. In their last 10 games, the Chiefs are 8-1-1-0, with a pair of wins over each of the teams ahead of them in the U.S. Division standings – the Tri-City Americans and Winterhawks.
The Chiefs’ pair of losses this month happened against the two division opponents below them in the standings – the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips.
Earlier in the month, the Chiefs gave up a three-goal lead in the third period to the Silvertips – who have the worst record in the WHL – and lost 4-3 in overtime. On Wednesday, Spokane took care of business and picked up a 4-2 win on the road in their final regular-season game against the Silvertips.
“We played well enough to win and did a lot of good things, but we’re going to have to be better when we play this weekend,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “We’ve got two quality teams and part of our trait is dictating the game, and I think sometimes we have an ability to play down to the opposition. No disrespect to Everett, but I think if we’d skated a little bit harder we wouldn’t have had to battle so hard at the end.
“We’re in the grind part of the season and we’ve obviously still got some work to do.”