The Spokane Chiefs stumbled out of the gate to start the season and were dancing with Seattle Thunderbirds for the bottom of the U.S. Division standings.
And that was before the longest road trip of the season that started with a 4-2 loss at Regina and a 6-0 thrashing by the Brandon Wheat Kings.
But the Chiefs (6-6-2-1, 15 points) turned in to road warriors and finished with seven points in their last four games to claw back to within a point of Portland (16) and four points of rival Tri-City Americans (19).
The Chiefs return home Friday for the first time since Oct. 18 when Spokane welcomes Red Deer to the Spokane Arena. The Chiefs then play the Americans on Saturday night at home.
“We knew we were young,” coach Don Nachbaur said. “We knew it would take some patience to play as a team.”
The Chiefs’ best offensive player, Kailer Yamamoto, was at the forefront of the resurgence. He scored the winning goal and got two assists in a 6-2 victory at Moose Jaw on Oct. 25.
He then scored two goals (9, 10) in a 6-2 win over the Saskatoon Blades, which put him at a tie for third among all WHL goal scorers. Yamamoto then had assists in games at Prince Albert and against Swift Current, which earned him WHL Player of the Week honors.
“I think for the first few, we had some tough games,” Yamamoto said. “Then we started some team building. I think all the boys are starting to buy in … and it’s paying off. We just need to keep doing whatever it takes to get a win.”
Yamamoto, who has been given an “A” rating by the NHL’s central scouting “Players to Watch” list, said winning the player-of-the week award was “surreal.
“It’s definitely an honor,” the 19-year-old forward said. “I’ll treasure it for a while.”
But Nachbaur said the team is far from a finished product. He thought the Chiefs should have won the 3-2 overtime loss last Tuesday to the Swift Current Broncos.
He also noted the 4-2 loss to Regina included three short-handed goals by the Pats.
“We played some good teams. There was only one game of the six (road games) I didn’t like,” Nachbaur said. “We are more competitive. We are starting to value the system.”
Yamamoto, who leads leads the team with 13 assists, said he was glad the team chose to keep older brother Keanu Yamamoto, 20, who is second on the team in scoring (3 goals, 9 assists).
“That’s huge. He’s not only my brother, he’s one of my biggest role models,” Kailer said. “He helps me with my confidence on the ice.”
Notebook: The Chiefs on Thursday announced that the team has released 6-foot-8 defenseman Trent Huitema, 18. The team will keep Huitema, who scored one goal this season, on its protected list, but he awaits reassignment to the British Columbia Hockey League.
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