Donning clean game uniforms, the Spokane Chiefs skated slowly into practice Tuesday to avoid scuffing the ice for the formal team photographs.
Dominic Zwerger fussed about his hair, which is dangerously close to a mullet, and others groused openly about having practice time interrupted by formalities.
It’s that time of year, as the schedule begins to wind down and the Chiefs (28-23-5-3 64 points) find themselves fighting for a playoff spot in a Western Hockey League that is full of parity.
What’s more, the Chiefs hit the final stretch of 13 games, including Prince George tonight, without four of its best players.
They include Kailer Yamamoto, the team’s leading scorer with 64 points (19 goals); team captain Jason Fram (44 points); and forwards Wyatt Johnson and Nik Anderson.
“I don’t think any other team has lost as many players to injuries, or had as many players away, as we have this year,” coach Don Nachbaur said. “Anytime you lose your leaders, you lose a lot.”
The Chiefs are fourth in the U.S. Division but seventh in the Western Conference, which sends eight teams to the playoffs.
Spokane is one point ahead of No. 8 Kamloops (63 points), but only nine points separate No. 4 Prince George (68 points) and No. 9 Tri-City (59 points).
“There’s a lot of parity in the league right now,” Nachbaur said. “With 13 games left, we have to be confident in what we do and committed to what we do.”
Nachbaur said he doesn’t know when to expect Yamamoto, who missed the last nine games after he suffered a head injury when he collided with a linesman.
Johnson, who was acquired mid-season in the trade that sent Adam Helewka to Red Deer, has missed 13 games; Anderson has missed seven and Fram has missed five. The team won’t discuss injuries and all four players are officially listed as having “upper body” injuries.
“Nobody of the four are coming back in the next week that I know of,” Nachbaur said. “It’s been that way the last month. We are holding our own.”
If there is a bright side to the situation, Nachbaur said it has forced him to give a lot more key minutes for the Chiefs’ younger players such as Ethan McIndoe, Hayden Ostir and Taylor Ross.
“They really have gotten their feet wet,” Nachbaur said. “I’m pretty excited about the quality of the time they are getting.”
In the meantime, the Chiefs will look to players such as Hudson Elynuik, who scored two goals Saturday to beat Tri-City, Markson Bechtold, Jacob Cardiff, and Preston Kopeck to step up.
“We’ve just got to keep our form and hope somewhere along the way to get some guys back in the lineup,” Nachbaur said.
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