One-third of the way through the Western Hockey League season, the Spokane Chiefs were vying for the third-best record in the Western Conference and a potential first-round playoff matchup against Victoria.
Two-thirds of the way through the season, Victoria caught fire and threatened to drop the Chiefs into the sixth-place spot and a possible first-round series against Kamloops.
But as the regular season wound down, it became clear that the Chiefs would again meet their biggest rival, the Tri-City Americans, in the postseason.
“You always have it in the back of your mind that you’re going to be playing Tri,” Chiefs captain Brenden Kichton said. “This is three years in a row now. It’s good, though. We love playing Tri for the atmosphere in the games, and the crowds we have are awesome.”
Fourth-seeded Spokane and the fifth-seeded Americans will begin a best-of-seven first-round series at 7:05 tonight at the Arena.
The Chiefs have home-ice advantage and will host Game 2 Saturday night and Games 6 and 7, if necessary, on April 2 and 3. The Americans will host Game 3 on Tuesday, Game 4 on Thursday and Game 5, if necessary, on March 30.
Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur, who coached the Americans for six seasons, said the home-ice edge is crucial.
“It’s a building where we feel comfortable,” Nachbaur said of the Arena, where the Chiefs were 25-10-1-0 this season. “We’ve had good results here all year long. We made some mistakes along the way, but it’s a lot easier playing at home with people cheering for us then going somewhere else and having them boo you.”
Tri-City defeated the Chiefs in seven games in a second-round series last season. Spokane knocked off the Ams 4-2 in a second-round series the season before.
The teams are meeting for the fourth time in the postseason in the last six years, and the seventh time overall since 1994-95.
Spokane won this year’s regular-season series 7-3-2-0, including wins in three of the last four meetings between the teams. The Chiefs have outscored the Ams 43-36.
“It’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure, but both teams know that and it’s going to be really exciting,” Chiefs left wing Carter Proft said.
Kichton leads the Chiefs with 85 points and 63 assists. Todd Fiddler has a team-best 42 goals, and Mitch Holmberg has 39 goals and 41 assists.
T-C’s leader is Justin Feser with 44 goals and 106 points.
“I think the teams are fairly balanced,” Kichton said. “They have good forwards and good defensemen, as do we, so it’s going to be a good series.”
Spokane enters on a hot streak, having won 10 of its final 12 regular-season games.
The Chiefs have been in the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons and 24 of the last 28.