For the Spokane Chiefs, the tension Saturday night was second only to, well, a Red-White Scrimmage.
No, that’s not a joke.
Indeed, it was training camp all over again: Dustin Tokarski in one net, Kevin Armstrong in the other, two old Chiefs teammates – and competitors – staring across the ice at each other with a fair measure of pride on the line.
And so Spokane’s 4-1 victory over Armstrong’s new team, the Prince George Cougars, may have hurt him as much as the other 54 losses he’s suffered as the goaltender of record in his four years in the Western Hockey League combined.
“It was a big thing,” admitted Armstrong. “I really wanted to win this one.”
If not for a breakaway goal by Tyler Johnson with just less than 7 minutes remaining – snapping a 1-1 tie – the Cougars may well have done just that, and Armstrong could have been considered the difference. Except it wasn’t as if Tokarski wilted at the other end, either, turning back 32 shots.
The two shared the goaltending job in Spokane for two seasons until Tokarski emerged as the leader and earned MVP honors in the Chiefs’ roll through the Memorial Cup. Feeling obliged to give Armstrong the opportunity to be a regular, Spokane general manager Tim Speltz dealt him to Prince George over the summer for a fourth-round bantam draft pick.
Armstrong said his hellos to his former teammates at a Saturday morning skate – and then was surprised when Speltz and owner Bobby Brett presented him with his Memorial Cup ring in a center-ice ceremony in front of 6,152 appreciative fans.
“That was a big thrill,” Armstrong said.
And the game was no letdown.
The Chiefs took the lead midway through the first period on Levko Koper’s power-play slap shot off a crisp cross-ice relay from Trevor Glass. The Cougars answered in the second with an advantage of their own, Parker Stanfield poking the puck in when Spokane’s Brett Bartman whiffed on a clearing pass.
In the third period, Armstrong could hardly have come up any bigger – twice turning back Drayson Bowman from point blank and Mitch Wahl on a walk-in from the right side. But as the clock ticked to less than 7:00, Ryan Letts made a dead-perfect pass to Johnson streaking through the neutral zone ahead of PG’s Cameron Cepek. With too much time and space, Johnson slid the puck between Armstrong’s pads.
Koper got an empty-netter just seconds after the Cougars pulled Armstrong in the final 1:10 trying to tie it up, and Dustin Donaghy scored the meaningless finale when Armstrong misgloved a rather easy chance just 31 seconds later.
It didn’t help Armstrong’s postgame outlook – but it didn’t take the shine off spectacular goaltending efforts at both ends.
“It was almost like they were trying to outdo each other,” said Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter. “Both guys are competitors – both guys are Chiefs, basically. But up until that second goal, it was a lot like the Red-White game two training camps ago. Nobody could score. It was no fun.”
Well, it was a little fun.
“It was exciting to see Army again,” Johnson said. “He’s a great guy and I miss him a lot. I was pretty lucky to get that goal. Now I can talk to him a little bit and make fun of him – but, no, he’s a great goalie.
“I know this meant a lot to him, but it meant a lot to us, too. It’s like he had something to prove to us and he proved it. It’s great for him to get this opportunity, but it sucks that he’s not on our team anymore. He wasn’t our backup last year – he was every bit a part of the team as anyone, and it was good to see him have a good night.”
For Armstrong, who won 51 games in goal for Spokane, the opportunity has had roller coaster moments. He entered the game with a 6-7 record and a 4.14 goals-against-average – but that included numbers of 1-7 and 7.10 on the road.
But the Cougars looked like a different team from the one that had lost seven of eight on a two-week trip.
“The boys were unreal in front of me,” Armstrong said. “Neither me nor Tik (Tokarski) wanted to give it up for the other guy and it was a lot of fun, but it hurts to fall short.”
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