You wouldn’t know it by Friday night’s lopsided 7-2 score – which came courtesy of Ryan Gropp’s four goals – but the victorious Seattle Thunderbirds and vanquished Spokane Chiefs are in the same boat.
Both teams are waiting to see if they’ll open the Western Hockey League playoffs next weekend against the Everett Silvertips or the Portland Winterhawks.
Spokane will play whichever team wins the U.S. Division and Seattle will meet the runner-up. After Friday’s results, in which Everett won and Portland lost, Everett (92 points) holds a narrow lead over Portland (90) with two games left.
Spokane (34-32-3-1, 72 points), the Western Conference’s No. 7 seed, will open at the No. 2 seed, the U.S. champion. Seattle (37-25-4-5, 83), third place in the division, will start against the division’s No. 2.
“With the new (playoff) formatting this year, it’s obviously different, but I kind of like it,” said Gropp, who scored three times in the third period to boost his club-leading total to 28.
“It’s going to be good, intense matchups for both of us.”
Spokane will open the playoffs on Friday if it’s at Everett and next Saturday if it’s at Portland.
Seattle could help hand the divisional title to Everett by defeating Portland tonight at home. Spokane plays at Tri-City tonight and closes the regular season at home Sunday against Everett.
Friday night’s game had no significant meaning for either team, but head coach Don Nachbaur still wanted his Chiefs to set a tone.
“For me, we weren’t committed,” Nachbaur said. “I mean, it looked to me, and it was apparent with the end result, that you’re not going to win games unless you outwork the other team and we got outworked in everything we did. We were second to every puck and that was the choice we made. We chose not to play the game the right way and those are the results you get when you play like that.”
Gropp opened the scoring in the game’s seventh minute, taking Roberts Lipsbergs’ pass and tipping a shot high over Chiefs goalie Tyson Verhelst.
The game was still within reach after two periods, but Gropp started the Thunderbirds’ five-goal third period at 35 seconds when he stayed with the play and hit the net with his second attempt.
Gropp also scored at 9:58 and 15:17, pushing the lead to 6-1.
“Our line was talking that we wanted to create more chances and obviously we had a good third,” said Gropp, whose last four-goal game came at the bantam level. “I kind of saw a couple of openings and we took advantage of them. We had a couple of rushes and obviously made some pretty good plays in tight and I was lucky enough to bury them.”
Gropp’s other WHL hat trick came last year against Prince George.
For the Chiefs, Adam Helewka scored his club-best 42nd goal early in the third period and Dominic Zwerger scored his 17th just 13 seconds after Gropp’s fourth of the night.
Seattle finished 7-3 against the Chiefs this season. The Thunderbirds won the final five matchups between the teams. Spokane’s last victory over Seattle came on Nov. 21.
One bit of good news for the Chiefs: Left wing Hudson Elynuik returned after missing significant time with upper-body injury.
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