The Spokane Chiefs put themselves in position Tuesday night to claim home-ice advantage for the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs.
They also put themselves in position to nearly blow a 5-0 lead, which clearly was on coach Don Nachbaur’s mind after the team’s second-to-last regular-season game at the Arena.
Adam Helewka scored the first goal and set up the third, and Blake Gal had three assists as the Chiefs held off the Prince George Cougars 6-4 to take over fourth place alone in the Western Conference.
Spokane improved to 42-25-2-0, 86 points to break a tie with the Tri-City Americans (40-25-1-3, 84), who lost 8-3 at Seattle. Spokane and Tri-City will meet in the first round of the playoffs, but the fourth-place team gets the home edge over the fifth-place team. The Chiefs will host Tri-City on Friday and travel to Kennewick on Saturday before the regular season ends Sunday.
The Cougars (21-40-2-6) scored four times in less than 8 minutes in the third period to cut the Chiefs’ lead to 5-4 with 2:19 left. Alessio Bertaggia’s empty-net goal 26 seconds later allowed Spokane to breathe easier, but Nachbaur and the players were shaking their heads after the game.
“I thought for sure that the last two periods we were a totally different team than the first period, and I think that’s a gang in there (the locker room) that has to learn that going into the playoffs,” Nachbaur said.
“We had a really great first period and after that we just sat back on our heels too much,” said Chiefs goaltender Eric Williams, who was 10 minutes away from his fourth shutout of the season when the Cougars fought back. “We didn’t end it the way we wanted to, but we got the two points and that’s all that mattered.”
Spokane outshot the Cougars 26-6 in the first period while seizing a 3-0 lead. Prince George outshot Spokane 35-14 the rest of the way, including a 23-9 edge in the third period.
Daniel Gibb scored twice as the Cougars peppered Williams in the third period.
“I made a couple of saves, too, but at the same time I have to do better at keeping the puck out of the net,” Williams said.
“It wasn’t on Eric at all,” Nachbaur said. “Eric held the fort.”
Spokane’s other goals came from its season leaders and a relatively new face. Todd Fiddler scored his team-high 42nd goal, Mitch Holmberg had his 38th, and Mike Aviani became the third Chief to reach 30 goals this season. Helewka, who hadn’t scored in three weeks, fed Markson Bechtold for his first career goal and a 3-0 lead.
“We’re really getting our game together and I think we’re going to be ready for the playoffs,” Helewka said.
The Chiefs had just recalled 16-year-old left wing Bechtold from the UFA Bisons of the Alberta AAA Midget Hockey League. Bechtold has appeared in three games with the Chiefs this season. … Right wing Blake Gal played in his 322nd game, tying Derek Schutz (1994-2000) for fifth place on the Chiefs’ all-time list.