Spokane Chiefs head coach Dan Lambert couldn’t have asked for a better 48th birthday gift.
He got Kailer Yamamoto back in the lineup and a standout performance from the Chiefs’ newly acquired goaltender, Bailey Brkin.
The 6-2 Western Hockey League win over the visiting Prince George Cougars was the cherry on top.
“We’ll take the two points every birthday,” Lambert said.
The Chiefs raced out to a 3-0 lead before the game was 10 minutes old, and Brkin made 36 saves in the victory. Even with the comfortable lead, Lambert credited Brkin with the win, after the new goaltender turned aside a number of glorious Prince George scoring opportunities.
“Our goalie might be the reason we were able to get these points,” Lambert said. “I thought he played extremely well and made key saves at key times for us.”
Brkin arrived in Spokane on Wednesday and said he found out he’d be starting after Friday’s morning skate.
“I was definitely nervous because you’re playing in front of a new group of guys and you always want to leave a good first impression,” he said. “It’s the same game but a bit different, more nerves tonight.”
Brkin played for the Coeur d’Alene Hockey Academy – “Probably the best decision in my hockey career I’ve ever made,” he said about his time there – and his former billets were in the Arena to watch his Chiefs debut.
The Chiefs also had Yamamoto back for the first time in nearly a month, after he spent time with the U.S. World Junior team at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, New York.
Yamamoto wasted no time making his presence known. He poked in a loose puck just 1:11 into the game to open the scoring for Spokane.
Jake McGrew scored the first of his two goals at 4:39 of the first on a 3-on-1, and Riley Woods added to Spokane’s lead with a nice one-timer at 9:27 of the first period. It was Woods’ 19th goal of the season.
Prince George got on the board after Liam Ryan scored his first career goal. The Cougars then got within one when Aaron Boyd took advantage of an ill-advised cross-ice pass by Yamamoto and took the puck the other way, scoring shorthanded.
But McGrew’s second goal of the game, on the power play and his ninth of the season, gave the Chiefs some cushion. Jaret Anderson-Dolan scored shorthanded at 17:49 of the second period to extend Spokane’s lead to 5-2.
Ethan McIndoe scored late in the third period as well. Anderson-Dolan finished with a goal and two assists and has 19 points in his last 11 games.
Yamamoto’s return gives the Chiefs some more depth throughout the lineup. He’s only played in 14 games this season, splitting time with the Edmonton Oilers, the Chiefs and at the World Juniors. With a goal and an assist on the night, Yamamoto will be looking to find a rhythm that has circumstantially eluded him this season.
“Now I have two months to focus on hockey in Spokane and that’ll be nice,” Yamamoto said.
His coach is looking for a big push the rest of the season.
“Kailer has got to have a big second half here,” Lambert said. “This is for sure his last opportunity to play for his home city. Once this season is over, he’s going to move on, whether it’s to the American Hockey League or the NHL. I think it’s really important that he has a big second half and helps the Spokane Chiefs have success.”
The win, coupled with a Seattle Thunderbirds loss to Kelowna, moves the Chiefs up to the Western Conference’s first wild-card position. The Tri-City Americans also lost, and Spokane is two points behind its main rival.
The Chiefs host Everett tonight at the Arena.