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Thursday, August 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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John Blanchette: Chiefs’ Williams reaches first goal

John Blanchette.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
John Blanchette. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Eric Williams had the best reason in the world for becoming a goaltender.

“I couldn’t score,” he said with a shrug.

Well, yes, that will certainly do it. If you can’t put the puck in the net and you still want to stay on the ice, the only options are wriggling into the fat pads or getting the shaft from the Russian judge on your long program.

Still, how bad could it have been for him to volunteer for 60 minutes of target practice?

“I hit like 17 posts and had two goals in a season,” Williams explained.

OK, then. Good choice.

Every compelling success story is rooted in some sort of failure, another reminder of which was delivered this past week. Williams and his Spokane Chiefs teammates live to launch another Western Hockey League playoff series Friday simply because they were too stubborn to quit and because their coach has a thing about playing every card in the deck – albeit often out of necessity.

That the Chiefs managed to squeeze by the Vancouver Giants in the WHL’s first round was no particular miracle on ice, what with just a point separating the two in the standings and the Giants being every bit as erratic over the last six weeks of the regular season as Spokane.

Or maybe not quite as erratic. The Chiefs were 10-13 in February and March, which is not exactly chugging into Playoff Stadium on the Momentum Express.

Then came the train wreck of the opening two games in Vancouver, where the Chiefs surrendered 14 goals – a belly-flop that made the underwhelming regular season look positively uplifting.

If the Chiefs seemed to be rehearsing their exit interviews, they were given ample additional nudges in that direction – a broken jaw to their best defenseman, Brenden Kichton, and later a one-game suspension for their captain, Darren Kramer, for joining a post-horn fight when he was supposed to be in the penalty box.

Naturally, they reeled off four straight victories instead, and now it’s on to more 509 fun with the Tri-City Americans.

Whether the best-of-7 concept was originally hatched for the sake of competitive integrity or simply to get into the fans’ pockets a few extra nights has been muddied over time. But it’s a swell invention, providing opportunity for redemption, wholesale momentum swings and big-picture strategies to take effect.

None of which probably happens if Spokane coach Don Nachbaur doesn’t yank starting goalie Mac Engel and send Williams out to rescue the series.

In the glow after eliminating the Giants in Game 6, Nachbaur was loathe to make it all about who was in net – and, in fact, it wasn’t.

But you can shake up line combinations all you want. Changing goalies is the perceptional equivalent of changing quarterbacks.

“But it wasn’t a hard decision,” Nachbaur insisted. “We did that all season long.”

More or less. Williams arrived in Spokane on Dec. 29 in a trade with Prince Albert that cost the Chiefs their leading scorer at the time, Anthony Bardaro – not the sacrifice that distinction would suggest.

For his part, Williams was “shocked – I wasn’t expecting it at all.

“My play hadn’t been great, but I did play fairly well in December. I just didn’t see it coming. But it was a blessing in disguise. I was coming to a playoff team.”

With no guarantee he’d get on the ice in those playoffs. Williams did get 15 starts – to Engel’s 23 – after the trade, but Engel’s numbers remained better.

“But even when a guy was hot, we still pulled him and went with the other guy,” Nachbaur said, “and tried to instill in both that they had to be ready.

“It’s about opportunity. Willie sees the opportunity. I go back to my first year (coaching) Tri – I had a young goalie, 16 years old, and we went to him and he took us a long way.”

And himself. Carey Price is still stopping them in the NHL.

There is no Carey Price here, but given his chance Williams stopped 96 of 102 shots and posted 1.45 goals-against-average in his four starts. It didn’t hurt that guys who were statues in front of Engel came to life.

Having gone to Plan B in net, Nachbaur stuck to Plan A elsewhere – using use all four of his lines, even in situations in which it seemed they might be overmatched.

“We tried to build trust with our young guys all season,” he said. “We tried to play (Liam) Stewart’s line against the other teams’ best and they were prepared for the challenge. They didn’t just look across at (Vancouver’s top) line and say, ‘We got to get out of here – we can’t play with these guys.’ They went nose to nose, and that helped our other guys down the stretch.”

The next challenge, of course, is far greater. But at least the Chiefs have a chance. Eric Williams gave it to them, by making good on his.

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