The Spokane Chiefs finished the regular season in third place in the tough U.S. Division, and fourth overall in the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference.
Tonight, they make their return to the playoffs after missing out last season.
Their reward? A first-round series against the Portland Winterhawks, the No. 2 team in the conference.
The WHL’s playoff structure mirrors that of the National Hockey League, in which the top three in each division qualify, as well as the next two best teams in the conference.
The divisional playoff structure means that, sometimes, top-tier teams meet up in the first round.
It’s not ideal as far as rewards go, but it’s the rule. The series begins tonight with the first of two games in Portland.
Portland won five of the eight matchups between the teams during the regular season, although Spokane won the last three, including the season finale in Portland.
The Chiefs will have to solve Portland’s goaltenders if they want to pull off the first-round upset. Portland’s Cole Kehler finished the season with a .909 save percentage. His backup, Shane Farkas, finished with a .913 save percentage in 24 appearances, giving the Winterhawks a nice tandem in net.
At the other end of the ice, the Chiefs’ goaltending situation is a little unknown. Starter Dawson Weatherill has gone through hot streaks, cold streaks and injuries this season. He finished with a .893 save percentage in 46 games. Backup Donovan Buskey played in 22 games and had a .871 save percentage.
The wild card in net is recently recalled Bailey Brkin. Acquired right before the trade deadline, the 18-year-old only appeared in seven games for Spokane but was impressive and had a .913 save percentage.
Whoever starts for Spokane will have to fend off Portland’s offensive attack, led by center Cody Glass. Glass finished the season with 102 points and had 11 points in eight games against Spokane this season. His line with Kieffer Bellows and Skyler McKenzie teamed to score 33 points against the Chiefs in eight games.
The Chiefs are expected to have Zach Fischer back in the lineup. The 20-year-old hasn’t played since Feb. 10 because of an upper-body injury. Fischer, acquired in an October trade with the Medicine Hat Tigers, developed great chemistry with linemates Hudson Elynuik and Riley Woods and scored 21 goals and 35 points in a Chiefs sweater.
Kailer Yamamoto and his team-leading 1.6 points per game should also be back in the lineup. Yamamoto sat out Spokane’s last three games of the regular season.
Portland holds a big advantage in one of the series’ intangibles: playoff success. Since 2009 – the last year Portland missed the playoffs – the Winterhawks have advanced past the first round every season except 2015-16. They’ve advanced past the second round five of those seven seasons.
While the players on Portland’s roster weren’t a part of all of those teams, the culture of success has followed the Winterhawks since their three consecutive appearances in the league finals from 2011-2013.
The Chiefs haven’t advanced past the first round since 2013. Of the players on this season’s roster, only Fischer and Woods have advanced past the first round, and they did so with their previous teams.
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