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Spokane Chiefs need strong finish to catch second-place Portland ahead of WHL playoffs

UPDATED: Thu., March 7, 2019, 10:52 p.m.

The Spokane Chiefs celebrate their third goal of the night, by Spokane forward Nolan Reid,  during the third period  against Kelowna onFeb. 1  at the Arena. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Chiefs celebrate their third goal of the night, by Spokane forward Nolan Reid, during the third period against Kelowna onFeb. 1 at the Arena. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

With their spot in the Western Hockey League playoffs secured, the Spokane Chiefs will play a pair of home games this weekend hoping to do what they can to catch the Portland Winterhawks.

Portland holds the second seed in the U.S. Division, five points ahead of the Chiefs, who have six games remaining, one more than the Winterhawks.

But two of the Winterhawks’ games are against last-place Prince George, so the task of hopping into second place – behind Everett, which beat Spokane 3-1 on Tuesday – will be difficult.

“We’d probably have to win out to have a chance,” Chiefs coach Dan Lambert said.

Short of that, they’d like to keep their recent streak rolling when they host the Vancouver Giants – tied with Everett for the best record in the Western Conference – on Friday and the playoff-bound Victoria Royals on Saturday.

The Chiefs are 11-3-2 in their last 16 games, creating some distance between themselves and the Tri-City Americans, who have just nine points in their last 10 games.

The gap between the Chiefs in third and the Ams in fourth is five points. At five games, the Ams have one fewer game left to play. Two of those are home-and-home dates with the Chiefs next weekend.

Barring some coinciding streaks, the Chiefs are likely to face Portland in the first round, just like they did last year.

The Winterhawks won that series in seven games, including the deciding game at home.

But the Chiefs are playing some of their best hockey at the end of this season.

That starts with their goaltending. Since Reece Klassen joined the Chiefs via trade on Jan. 2, he is 6-3-2 with a 2.46 goals-against average, more than a full goal lower than his 3.57 average in 26 games with Lethbridge this year.

In 16 starts since Klassen was acquired, goalie Bailey Brkin is 9-3-1.

“We feel comfortable with both guys,” Lambert said of the goalies. “Part of the reason that we’ve split them is the fact that we have a lot of games coming up … and we don’t want to tire anybody out heading into the playoffs.

“We feel that we’re fortunate, one of the few fortunate teams, maybe, that feels comfortable with both their goalies.”

The Chiefs are also healthier than they’ve been all season. Since returning to the lineup full time in January, Jaret Anderson-Dolan is on the same scoring pace as he was last year, with 36 points in 27 games.

Ty Smith is still second among all WHL defenseman with 59 assists, and Adam Beckman is second among league rookies with 27 goals.

After a slow start, rookie winger Connor Gabruch has also picked up his scoring. He has three goals and three assists in the last 11 games after going pointless his first 33.

“Looking at all of (the rookies), they’ve all taken steps and strides,” Lambert said. “It’s a difficult year, whether you’re 16 or 17, just the amount of games, the travel, and to fit in school with all of that, it’s a grueling schedule. I don’t think anybody understands until you go through it how difficult it is.”

After this weekend, the Chiefs play at Kamloops, Kelowna and Tri-City. They end the regular season March 16 at home against Tri-City.

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