In a must-win game to reach the playoffs, the Spokane Chiefs put on an offensive show and crushed visiting Tri-City Americans 6-1 Friday night to get some breathing room.
The Chiefs (31-27-5-4, 71 points) now hold a six point lead over the Americans (31-34-2-1, 65 points) for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot with five games to play.
“That was huge,” coach Don Nachbaur said. “What a turn-around. We had a fabulous effort from everybody.”
The game started like many other contests between these two rivals: both teams struggled to control the puck as they took turns smashing each other into the boards.
Right after Jeff Faith caused a turnover that led to a Tri-City shot, Nik Anderson raced the other way, got free and somehow got the puck past goalie Nicholas Sanders to put the Chiefs up 1-0 with 15:32 left in the first period.
Some 30 seconds after Tyson Verhelst saved a shot that he thought got by him, Spokane raced the other way and Taylor Ross sent a rocket into the scrum in front of the Tri-City net. The puck careened off an American and found the net to make it 2-0 Chiefs.
Jaret Anderson-Dolan was awarded an assist on the play.
Then, at the 10:48 mark of the first period, Markson Bechtold fired a shot that again got past Sanders to make it 3-0 Chiefs. At that point, Spokane had five shots-on-goal and scored on three of them.
That spelled an early exit for Sanders as Tri-City coach Mike Williamson pulled him and put veteran goalie Evan Sarthou into the game.
“It was definitely nice. We knew we needed a big start against them,” said Tyson Helgensen, who finished with three assists on the night. “It was a make it or break it kind of game. Every shift was huge.”
The second period simply got crazy.
About six-and-a-half minutes into the period, a scrum on the boards turned into a sucker punch by Tri-City’s Maxwell James on Spokane’s Markson Bechtold. As a result, James was tossed but not before he gave the jeering 9,352 fans a hand gesture during his exit.
While Spokane was awarded a rare seven-minute power play, Tri-City went on the attack and Parker Bowles scored. The short-handed goal made it 3-1 Chiefs with 12:34 left in the period.
Then about seven minutes later, Anderson-Dolan fired a shot that rebounded to Keanu Yamamoto, who slammed it home to make it 4-1 Chiefs.
Then during a power play, Spokane’s Preston Kopeck fired a perfect pass to Anderson-Dolan, who made it look easy, as he gave the Chiefs a 5-1 lead with 2:39 left in the period.
“I think everybody knew it was such a big game,” said Anderson-Dolan, who also finished with three assists. “With a win, it sets us up for the playoffs.”
Just over a minute later, Dominic Zwerger got free, fired a shot, got his own rebound and got it around Sarthout. Zwerger’s 26th goal of the season made it 6-1 Chiefs.
“After Anderson-Dolan scores, we got the momentum back. He gave me a really good pass,” Zwerger said. “I got the rebound and I got it in.”
Chiefs goalie Tyson Verhelst finished with 30 saves, including one where he somehow got a glove on a puck during a scrum that would have allowed the Americans back into the game.
“He had one of his best games of the year,” Nachbaur said. “We needed that. To make points up on the road would have been tough.”
The Chiefs return to the Spokane Arena Saturday night for their final home game against Kelowna before finishing with four road games.
“It was a character win for us. It was great to see that,” Anderson-Dolan said. “It was just an all-around great team effort.”
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