The first meeting of the season between the Spokane Chiefs and the Seattle Thunderbirds couldn’t have gone any better for the home team.
A four-goal first period and a hat trick from Adam Helewka – not to mention some shut-down defense against Seattle’s top line – helped the Chiefs cruise to a 7-1 victory over Seattle, the top team in the Western Hockey League’s U.S. Division. The Chiefs are one point behind Seattle and sit in second place.
The Thunderbirds came into the game ranked ninth in the Canadian Hockey League and boasted a top line that featured 2015 NHL draft picks in Mathew Barzal (first round, New York Islanders), Ryan Gropp (second round, New York Rangers) and Keegan Kolesar (third round, Columbus Blue Jackets).
But early on, that line experienced some quick attrition.
It started when Barzal and Keanu Yamamoto dropped the mitts after getting tangled up near center ice. Yamamoto admitted it was his first fight.
“He dropped his stuff first and I couldn’t say no,” Yamamoto said. “I think I held my own. We were kind of just tied up. Not many punches were getting through.”
A little more than 2 minutes later, Kolesar and Tyson Helgesen fought after Helgesen leveled Gropp with a hard hit along the boards. Both fights sent the participants to their respective dressing rooms for 5 minutes, and Gropp suddenly found himself without any linemates.
By that point the Chiefs already had a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Curtis Miske and Helgesen. Miske’s opening goal came after he picked the pocket of Seattle defenseman Ethan Bear in front of the Seattle net.
Helgesen’s goal came after a cross-ice pass from Helewka just after a Seattle penalty had expired.
After the Barzal-Gropp-Kolesar line was decimated, Helewka found the net to give the Chiefs a 3-0 lead. Just 19 seconds later, Helewka found the net again and the Chiefs took a 4-0 lead into the first intermission.
“I think we were prepared to play a really good team,” Helewka said. “It starts from our goaltending to our defense to our forwards. Everyone had a great game.”
The Chiefs needed to remain disciplined, because Seattle can strike at any moment and plays a big, physical game.
“I think we learned a really good lesson the past couple weeks against Tri-City where we blew a lead and lost the game with a few minutes left,” Helewka said, referencing the team’s 6-5 loss on Nov. 27 in Kennewick.
The Chiefs’ discipline showed when Jaret Anderson-Dolan laid a big hit and then declined an invitation to drop the gloves in the second period.
Import player Nik Anderson extended the Chiefs’ lead to 5-0 in the second period.
Gropp scored Seattle’s lone goal of the game in the second period on the power play. Anderson-Dolan answered a few minutes later on the doorstep with his seventh goal of the season.
Helewka capped off the hat trick just 13 seconds into the third period. He has scored at least one point in nine straight games and has 15 goals in his 16 games played.
“I think we played a hell of a game in a lot of areas,” Chiefs head coach Don Nachbaur said. “It might be our best game we’ve played this year.”
The Chiefs and Thunderbirds play nine more times this season, and the Chiefs’ next 11 games are all against U.S. Division foes. The Chiefs have played teams in the U.S. Division only 11 times in its 28 games so far.
“If you look at the standings, nobody is pulling away from anybody,” Nachbaur said. “Even the 10th-place team in the conference and the ninth-place teams are right there in striking distance to make the playoffs, so you can’t relax.”