The Tri-City Americans’ mad dash to knock the Spokane Chiefs out of the playoffs last week collided with the will of a journeyman defenseman seeking his first ever goal after three years as a Chief.
Matt Sozanski delivered.
The 19-year-old from Calgary, Alberta, scored his first goal in a 4-1 loss to Seattle on March 15. But Sozanski also scored the next night against Everett in a 3-2 win; and again in the 5-4 overtime victory over Portland on March 18 to fend off the Americans and propel the Chiefs into the playoffs.
“Obviously, it was good to get the first one,” Sozanski said. “It took a huge weight off my back. The monkey was gone.”
That monkey haunted Sozanski for 141 games over three seasons.
“Obviously with my production not being too good in the last few years, it felt good to step up like that at a time we needed to win,” he said. “And to have a part in that is very special to me.”
With Sozanski’s last minute production, the Chiefs fended off the Americans and now travel on Friday to take on the Victoria Royals (50-16-3-3, 106 points), which have the best record in the entire Western Hockey League.
The Chiefs (33-30-5-4, 75 points) wouldn’t have been making travel plans without a couple hard-fought wins on the road.
“We expected Matt to be more of an offensive guy throughout the season,” coach Don Nachbaur said. “And it’s taken a while, but he’s picked the right time of the year to find the back of the net. We are happy to see him break that goose egg. He’s been snake bitten over the years.”
The Chiefs took Sozanski as a seventh-round pick (151st overall) in the 2011 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft.
He played in 49 games in the 2013-14 season without recording an assist or goal. He played in 33 games last season and got 14 assists. This year, he has 18 assists and three goals in 62 games.
“Obviously … not the way I thought it would end up. But I’m just happy I finally got it,” Sozanski said of his first goal. “And I’m really just happy it came at a time when the boys needed a playoff push and we made it happen.”
Nachbaur said the team has had to score by committee all year as the team battled injuries and lost players to international tournaments.
“We haven’t had, outside of (Jason) Fram, any offense from our back end this year,” he said, referring to his defensemen. “And for Matt to step up, it was the right time of the year to do that. We are hoping he can continue that.”
Sozanski will be competing with Dominic Zwerger (27 goals, 55 points); Markson Bechtold (17 goals, 48 points); Keanu Yamamoto (22 goals, 54 points) and Jacob Cardiff (9 goals, 17 points) for the three 20-year-old positions that the team is allowed to carry next season.
“I don’t really know what my future holds for me is but I’m going to do my best to stay here,” Sozanski said. “I’m just happy we made the playoffs and hopefully we can keep this rolling.”
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