Rumor has it the Spokane Chiefs can beat the Portland Winterhawks, hard as that may be to believe with the way their three Western Hockey League games have unfolded at the Arena.
The Hawks (22-13-1, 45 points) leapfrogged past the Chiefs (21-10-2, 44) in the U.S. Division standings with a late power-play goal for a 3-2 win before 3,766 fans Wednesday night.
“I think quite honestly their goalies have stolen the last two,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said. “In the first game, we just didn’t play well. The second game we lose 2-0 and the second (goal) is an empty-netter. I thought we outplayed them.
“Tonight, again, you could argue we outplayed them and just couldn’t score. Disappointed in the loss, but at the same time I think we did a lot of good things.”
What the Chiefs, who outshot Portland 33-22, couldn’t do was finish, though they had numerous opportunities against Ian Curtis.
“Some nights when things are going good those pucks seem to land on your sticks,” Sauter said. “Some nights when it’s a little rougher sledding it’s not as easy. You have to dig a little extra or almost guess where the puck is going to be and then not go there.
“It’s just too bad, because I thought we did generate enough good chances to win.”
The difference was Nino Niederreiter’s power-play goal at 13:50 of the third period. He notched his 21st tally when Ryan Johansen’s pass from behind the net found him alone in front of the net.
Kyle Beach had taken the penalty for goalie interference when he crashed the goal following his shot, looking to break the tie.
“I’m not upset or disappointed with what Kyle did,” Sauter said. “In a lot of circumstances it’s probably OK. Tonight, for whatever reason, both teams were going to the net and it was the ref’s decision that was a penalty. Nothing to do there but kill it and we didn’t. It’s too bad.”
Although the Chiefs, who have won twice in Portland, are the league’s best penalty killers it didn’t help that two of their PK stalwarts, Jared Cowen and Tyler Johnson, are at camps for the World Junior Tournament.
Maybe their absence contributed to the Chiefs playing a little out of character.
“It was kind of a back-and-forth game, it’s not really what we were looking for,” said forward Mitch Wahl, who had both Spokane goals. “We call it river hockey, just up one way, back the other way, odd-man rushes, turnovers. It just wasn’t overall the way we want to play.
“We did have our chances. He made some good saves, we just weren’t able to finish on some of them.”
Spokane struck early when a nice touch-pass by Beach sent Wahl racing out of the Chiefs’ zone. Wahl cut left in the Port- land end and sent a high wrist shot into the top left corner of the goal for his 12th of the season. That lead lasted until Brad Ross was left alone on the right side to tap in Niederreiter’s pass from the left circle at 10:30.
Portland’s Stefan Schneider cashed in on a short-handed breakaway at 14:17 of the second period.
Wahl tied it at 4:41 of the third, finding the same hole from between the circles on a 4-on-2 rush.
“I liked our effort in the third,” Sauter said. “The first two weren’t great periods, but still OK. In the third, to come out and tie it up, I thought we did carry the play until that last power play. Too bad, but all the same, lessons to learn about our execution or lack thereof and move on.”
The Chiefs play Seattle at the Arena on Friday before taking nine days off for Christmas, returning to play Portland on Dec. 27.
Winterhawks 3, Chiefs 2
First Period—1, Spo, Wahl 12 (Beach, Kichton) 3:25. 2, Port, Ross 17 (Johansen, Niederreiter) 10:30. Second Period—3, Port, Schneider 6 (Francis, Curtis) 14:17, sh. Third Period—4, Spo, Wahl 13 (Miller, Gal) 4:41. 5, Port, Niederreiter 21 (Johnansen, Ross) 13:50 pp.
Power-play Opp.—Portland 1 of 2; Spokane 0 of 5. Saves—Portland, Curtis 11-4-1—16. Spokane, Reid 18-5-2—25. A—3,766.
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