KENNEWICK – Tri-City Americans fans were already none too keen on Blake Gal.
Their lack of warmth toward Gal only grew after the Spokane Chiefs’ right wing pushed the Americans to the brink of playoff elimination Thursday night.
Gal scored 5 minutes, 10 seconds into overtime against backup goaltender Troy Trombley to give the Chiefs a 4-3 victory and a 3-1 advantage in their Western Hockey League best-of-seven series. The Chiefs have three shots at finishing off the series, starting Saturday night at Toyota Center. If the Americans win Game 5, Spokane would have two chances at home to end the first-round series.
“(Alessio) Bertaggia got it on the wall there and I just went for open ice,” Gal said of the winning play. “He’s a good player and if you find open ice he’ll get you the puck, and he did.”
The winning shot skipped over Trombley’s stick.
“They can whine and complain about the overtime goal jumping over his stick, but at the end of the day it’s about bounces and we got the bounces in overtime,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said.
Gal also drew the home fans’ ire in the first period, during a sequence in which teammate Adam Helewka scored at 15:38 to tie the game at 1. Before Helewka’s shot, an Americans player pushed Gal into goaltender Luke Lee-Knight. Gal stayed on top of the goalie for a few moments and fans wanted an interference call.
“I just kind of sat on him a bit,” Gal said. “Their player hit me into him and I felt like it wasn’t my fault.”
Trombley, who started Tri-City’s Game 1 and 2 losses, entered 2:02 into overtime when Lee-Knight left with an upper-body injury.
“With a cold goalie, it’s not always the best situation for them,” Gal said. “We just knew we had to get the puck on him as quickly as possible, and he did make a few good saves.”
Trombley stopped Connor Chartier’s breakaway 1½ minutes before Gal’s winner.
The early part of the game featured two fights and few shots.
Justin Feser opened scoring for the Americans at 9:25 of the first period. On the play, Jesse Mychan stole the puck and shoveled a pass to Malte Stromwall, who fed Feser.
Helewka’s goal snapped a 60-minute scoreless streak for the Chiefs stretching back to Tuesday’s second period.
In the final minute of the period, Lee-Knight made a fine stop on Dylan Walchuk’s breakaway, but the rebound went to Todd Fiddler for his second goal of the playoffs and a 2-1 lead.
The Chiefs turned away three Americans power-play chances during the scoreless second period.
Spokane took a 3-1 lead at 6:35 of the third period on Brenden Kichton’s first goal of the playoffs. Kichton caught the puck in midair, set it down and scored to the near-right of Lee-Knight.
Riley Whittingham’s kneeing penalty with 6:02 left gave the Americans another power-play chance. This time they cashed in, on Mitch Topping’s first goal of the playoffs.
“We felt like we had control of the game at 3-1 and we made a mistake, another penalty,” Nachbaur said.
Drydn Dow, with an assist from Stromwall, tied the game with 2:43 left.