VANCOUVER, British Columbia – If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
That seems to be the strategy of Spokane Chiefs head coach Don Nachbaur, who, for the third straight game, opted to go with Eric Williams over Mac Engel at goaltender.
The move paid off as Williams stopped 24 shots on the evening and the Chiefs escaped Pacific Coliseum with a 5-1 victory over the Vancouver Giants on Friday night for a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 first-round Western Hockey League series.
The Chiefs will have an opportunity to close out the playoff series Sunday in Spokane.
“Willy made some outstanding saves in the first period and that was key for us,” Nachbaur said. “I also thought all four lines played hard and we got huge contributions from a lot of guys.”
“He’s been great for us for the three games he’s been in now,” Chiefs winger Mitch Holmberg said of Williams.
Prior to Game 5, this first-round series had been defined by home-ice advantage. The Giants took the first two contests in Vancouver, while the Chiefs won the third and fourth games in Spokane. The first team to score in each has also gone on to win.
While the Giants came out the more aggressive offensive team to start Friday’s game, it was Spokane that got in the books first. Liam Stewart scored off a rebound at the 7-minute, 20-second mark.
The first period also proved to be a physical one. At every available opportunity, both squads tussled and chirped at each other.
Vancouver’s Austin Fyten and the Chiefs’ Jason Fram dropped their gloves just mere seconds after each were released from the penalty box, where they were previously put in for unsportsmanlike conduct.
As solid as Williams was protecting the goal in the first, the rest of the Chiefs provided him with plenty of support. Spokane was active on the defensive end, deflecting pucks and helping Williams defend the net during Giants power plays.
A minute into the second period, Spokane struck again as Darren Kramer scored on a give-and-go from Mike Aviani.
But Vancouver was able to get on the board as well. In one of his few mistakes of the night, Williams was hit with a roughing penalty at 14:15. The Giants took full advantage of the following power play when Brendan Gallagher got one past Williams, making the score 2-1 going into the third.
But the third period belonged to Holmberg, who has been strong all series. First, Holmberg put back a loose puck in front of the net to score at 4:47. Then, he got a crafty backhand shot to zoom past Giants goaltender Adam Morrison. That power-play goal at 9:14 was assisted by Dominik Uher and Dylan Walchuk. For the playoffs, Holmberg has five goals.
“Playing with Aviani and Kramer, they make it easy for me out there,” Holmberg said.
The Chiefs’ Blake Gal put on the exclamation point with his slap-shot goal 23 seconds later that gave Spokane a commanding 5-1 lead.
Game 6 in Spokane is expected to be another heated battle. As the buzzer sounded at the end of the game, players from both teams briefly brawled at center ice. Holmberg said it’s a sign of things to come.
“I think all the games have been a war and I don’t expect Game 6 to be any different,” he said.