As the Spokane Chiefs’ regular-season schedule reached its one-fourth point, head coach Don Nachbaur identified some subtle changes that had occurred in recent games.
But one thing hadn’t changed: The Western Hockey League schedule appears designed to give the Chiefs an early-season challenge.
Take this week, when the Chiefs caught an early bus Tuesday for a swing through Alberta and British Columbia, starting with Wednesday’s game at Medicine Hat (11-3-3-0).
“We just played the best team in the Western Conference (Portland, 14-4-0-1) and now we’re headed to play the top team in the Eastern Conference,” Nachbaur said during a stop on the road to Medicine Hat.
At the one-sixth point of the season, the Chiefs were 10-2-0-0 and boasted the best winning percentage in the WHL. Six games later, or the one-fourth point, Spokane had dropped to 12-6-0-0 and was tied with three teams for the second-most points (24) in the Western Conference, just three points ahead of seventh-place Victoria.
Nachbaur said the Chiefs took a slight step backward during their last six games. The defense has been more porous and the offense hasn’t taken the burden off leaders Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani.
But it’s important to note that when this week ends, the Chiefs will have played 13 of their first 21 games on the road, cutting into continuity in Spokane’s practice schedule.
Also, half of Spokane’s losses have come against Portland, the league’s top team. The Chiefs have lost to Portland by a combined 13-8 and have held the Winterhawks to about one goal less per game than they’ve averaged against other teams.
Spokane’s most discouraging loss (5-4) came Oct. 30 at Kamloops, the Western Conference’s last-place team.
“High-end teams don’t lose to teams like (Kamloops),” Nachbaur said. “We approached the game wrong. We got exactly what we deserved.”
Nachbaur notes that the Chiefs have been at their best when their backs were against the wall. The Chiefs won three one-goal games on the road, scoring three times in the third period for a 3-2 win at Red Deer; winning a 3-2 shootout in Calgary after scoring two third-period goals; and shutting out Everett 1-0 in overtime despite being outshot 31-21.
The schedule becomes more favorable for the rest of the month, with five of seven games at the Arena. The Chiefs play two more games against Portland this month before saying goodbye to the Winterhawks for more than seven weeks. December’s schedule, prior to Christmas, features another five of seven games at home.
“We’re 12-6 and proud of that, but we can’t rest on our laurels,” Nachbaur said. “But the toughest part of the schedule is behind us.”