Mike Babcock and his staff of assistants could spend the rest of the winter trying to solve all the riddles the Spokane Chiefs leave in their wake.
But there is one consistency after 58 games of this hockey season.
When the heat comes on, so does John Cirjak.
Sir Jack - the ace of crunch time - did it again Saturday night before another sellout of 10,455 in the Arena.
His goal 1:26 into sudden-death overtime carried the Chiefs to an important 2-1 Western Hockey League win over the Tri-City Americans - important because the team they have to finish in front of keeps winning.
The third-place Chiefs maintained their six-point lead - three full games - over fourth-place Kelowna on the strength of Aren Miller’s goaltending and another of Cirjak’s game-breaking scoring plays.
It started with Greg Leeb shoving a hard pass Cirjak’s way that defenseman Scott McCallum tried to pick off. He missed, the puck bounced off the wall and Cirjak jumped free of McCallum to pick up the puck. He had a good angle on goaltender Aaron Baker, who had earlier stoned Cirjak on a similar breakaway.
“With a minute left in the third (period) I came in the same way and went upstairs shelf (with the shot) and missed,” Cirjak said. “This time I went to the backhand and he didn’t come across in time. Baker stood on his head all night but we finally found a way to beat him.”
It’s become a ritual in the brief interlude between the end of regulation and OT, when Babcock assures Cirjak that “You’re my man.”
“It was funny this time,” said the 19-year-old center. “He didn’t say anything before the first line went. Schutzie (Derek Schutz) went to him and said, ‘Babs, you forgot, you didn’t call your man.’
“I was sitting right beside Schutz. Babs said, ‘Don’t worry, Jack’s my man.”’
Babcock smiled at the re-telling.
“I told him he’d score, just like always,” the coach said.
It was the fourth straight strong performance in goal by the Chiefs’ 18-year-old Aren Miller, who knocked aside 33 of 34 shots and skated off with the first star award.
Spokane (28-26-4) ended a three-game home-ice losing streak and with 14 games left took another step toward locking up third in the West, and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
It was Spokane’s WHL-high 12th overtime game. The Chiefs improved to 5-3-4 in OT.
Spokane took slightly more than 60 seconds to do what it couldn’t do in three hours Friday night - score. The Chiefs’ first goal came 62 seconds into the game by turning a Tri-City power play into a Tri-City disaster. With Spokane’s Chad Reich in the penalty box for an elbowing minor, Trent Whitfield scored his fourth short-handed goal of the season.
Busting to the net, Whitfield got his stick on a pass from Leeb to tip in his 28th goal of the season.
The Americans got the equalizer in the second period from Shawn Legault, who found himself alone in the slot with nobody within 15 feet of him. Mike Hurley sent the puck to Legault, who scored his fourth goal of the year and his third in his last three games.
Better known for throwing punches than scoring goals, Legault sent the two teams off at the second intermission tied at 1.
The Chiefs had an opportunity to break it open in the second period but did nothing with a 54-second, 5-on-3 power play.
They later had a 5-minute score-at-will power play, when Tri-City’s Shawn Gervais was ejected for cutting Spokane defenseman Kirk Dewaele with a high stick. The high-sticking major gave Spokane an extra attacker for 5 minutes.
Again the Chiefs did nothing with the opportunity.
Tri-City coach Bob Loucks waited for a key moment of the third period to spring another successful stick challenge on the Chiefs. After Whitfield had been sent off for slashing to put Tri-City on the power play, Loucks ordered a measurement of Brad Ference’s stick.
Ference’s stick had too much angle, and for the second time in a week a Spokane player was sent to the penalty box with an illegal stick.
It put five attackers against three Spokane penalty killers for 1:51. The Chiefs - primarily Leeb, Hugh Hamilton and Reich - killed the penalties.
“They (the sticks) are all going back to the factory,” Babcock groused. “This is ridiculous. We had no discipline. We owe this one to the goaltender.”
Chiefs 2, Americans 1 (OT)
Tri-City 0 1 0 0 - 1 Spokane 1 0 0 1 - 2
First period - 1, Spokane, Whitfield 28 (Leeb, Hamilton) 1:02 (short-handed). Key penalties - Reich, Spo, :31; Legault, T-C, 4:48; Jones, Spo, 5:59; Leeb, Spo, 10:50. Hamilton, Spo, 20:00.
Second period - 2, Tri-City, Legault 4 (Hurley) 8:20. Key penalties - Ference, Spo, 2:25; Haley, Spo, 5:10; Komarniski, T-C, 9:18; Komarniski, T-C, 12:52; Tri-City bench (too many men on) 13:58; Gervais, T-C, high sticking major, game misconduct, 15:57.
Third period - None. Key penalties - Whitfield, Spo, 5:56; Ference, Spo, illegal stick, 6:06; McCallum, T-C, 13:54.
Overtime - 3, Spokane, Cirjak 29 (Leeb, Dewaele) 1:26.
Power plays opportunities - Tri-City 0 of 8. Spokane 0 of 6.Saves - Tri-City, Baker 8-13-8-2-31. Spokane, Miller 11-11-10-1-33.A-10,455.
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