Brenden Kichton scored a pair of goals. He assisted on all the others.
But that’s not what he was most excited about while fielding postgame questions. Kichton, Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur and starting goalie Eric Williams all had the highest praise for second-year center Liam Stewart.
It was Stewart’s effort in clearing the puck on a face-off in Spokane’s zone during a 5-on-3 penalty kill that captured just what was so special about the Chiefs in their 5-3 Western Hockey League victory over the Victoria Royals in front of 4,617 fans on Friday night at the Arena.
It wasn’t Mitch Holmberg’s two goals – though both were a result of the veteran forward’s skill rather than luck. It wasn’t Kichton’s five-point night, though Nachbaur had plenty of praise for his stalwart captain.
It was Spokane’s collective efforts on special teams – specifically the penalty kill – that gave the Chiefs an edge against the Royals (4-2).
“We knew they were playing well and we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game – it was a challenge for our guys,” said Nachbaur. “They’ve got some offensive skill … and we did well to come up with the two points.
“There are some guys who played really hard tonight – and those guys are giving us a chance to win – but there are a lot of guys that still have a long way to go,” added Nachbaur. “But overall. I’m real happy. We won, we competed hard for the win and we made some real key plays to get this one.”
Stewart’s effort during the 27 seconds when the Royals had a two-man advantage was probably the most notable one, but others also played well on the penalty kill, including Kichton, Reid Gow and forwards Mike Aviani and Dylan Walchuk.
“Outstanding effort by Liam Stewart – outstanding,” Nachbaur said. “Those are efforts that win you hockey games.”
“Special teams are a lot of times what are the difference in the game,” Kichton added. “And that was awesome, to see (Stewart) battle like that. He laid it all out on that PK, and Don really praised him in the locker room for it.”
Nachbaur also had praise for his power-play unit, which scored three of Spokane’s goals – both of Holmberg’s (one in the first and one in the second) and Kichton’s third-period goal from the point at 11:07, which flat out stunned Victoria goalie Patrik Polivka and also was the winner.
“We feel we could have played better, but we had some good individual performances and that helped push us to the win,” Kichton said.
One of those performances came from Williams, last year’s playoff star, who learned earlier in the day he will be Spokane’s starting goalie this season when the Chiefs announced they released fellow 19-year-old netminder Mac Engel, who will return home and await a trade.
Another roster question was answered when 20-year-old defenseman Davis Vandane was dealt to the Prince Albert Raiders for a conditional pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam draft.
“You try not to focus on it – my job is to go out, play and win and I’ve been able to do that so far this year,” Williams said of the goalie situation, which was one of the more frequent questions followers of the team had been asking. “It was the coaches’ and GM’s decision, not mine. I was just happy to get the start tonight and hopefully we keep it going.
“We did an excellent job tonight.”
Current Detroit Red Wings and former Spokane Chiefs coach Mike Babcock will attend tonight’s game against the Lethbridge Hurricanes at the Arena and will drop the ceremonial first puck. Babcock is the Chiefs’ all-time leader in coaching victories with 224 over a six-year span (1994-2000). He has coached in the Stanley Cup Finals three times, including when the Red Wings won in 2008, and also helped Canada win the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal.
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