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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Underdog Spokane Chiefs need to stick to script in playoffs

Spokane Chiefs Jason Fram and Kailer Yamamoto (celebrating a Curtis Miske goal early in the season against Brandon) will be at full strength when the playoffs start on Friday. Fram and Yamamoto missed big chunks of the season with injuries. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

All season long, Spokane battled with a depleted lineup and inconsistent effort. But the Chiefs found just enough hockey magic at the end to secure the final wild-card position into the playoffs.

Their reward: Hit the road to play the Victoria Royals, the team that posted the best record in either conference of the Western Hockey League. It’s the same team that knocked out Spokane 4-0 in the 2014 playoffs.

“For sure, we cannot play like them,” Nachbaur said of the Royals. “Their game is fast. They are physical. They are always on the right side of the puck. It’s a good team.”

But for a squad looking for a deep run and a chance at the Memorial Cup, Spokane could be a terrible draw depending on the night. The Chiefs are 2-2 against Victoria (50-16-3-3, 106 points) this season, with each team winning once on the road.

“We beat good teams this year,” Nachbaur said. “But we were committed to our game plan.”

The Chiefs have shown flashes of being world beaters. On the next evening, they often made bad teams look very good.

Early in February, the Chiefs beat Kelowna 6-4 on the road and then lost 4-1 to Tri-City the next night. Later in February at home, the Chiefs posted a hard fought 1-0 shutout win over Prince George only to drop a 6-0 laugher to the same team two nights later.

“We have been guilty of playing a certain style one night and playing a whole different style the next night,” Nachbaur said. “We have got to play our game plan. If we have three or four guys who refuse to do that, it’s going to hurt us.”

When the Chiefs (33-30-5-4, 75 points) are at their best, they play a disruptive defense that obliterates offensive possessions for the other team. And on offense, the Chiefs find creases to score opportunistic goals.

At their worst, they mishandle pucks and leave their goalie on an island trying to fend off fast breaks.

“In those games we lost, we tried to be fancy and cute and we are not a fancy-and-cute team,” Nachbaur said. “We have to play to our identity, and that’s hard working.”

Early in the season, the Chiefs lost the services of several players who were picked to play in international competitions. Once those players returned, the team was hit with a rash of injuries.

The Chiefs just recently got its best offensive player, Kailer Yamamoto (19 goals, 71 points), back after missing five weeks. It also returned team captain Jason Fram (12 goals, 46 point) and young forward Ethan McIndoe (8 goals, 17 points).

But the team just last week lost starting goalie Tyson Verhelst, and it is still without the services of defenseman Evan Fiala and forward Wyatt Johnson.

The Chiefs will enter the playoffs with Lasse Petersen in the net, who scored two shutouts this season and posted a .894 save percentage in 18 games.

Asked about any concerns entering the playoffs with a backup in the net, Nachbaur replied: “It’s just another day at the office of the Spokane Chiefs.

“We’ve had multiple injuries this year and haven’t played healthy the entire year,” he said. “We haven’t fielded a lineup that, to me, would be our strongest lineup.”

The key to surviving against the Royals will be the defense in front of Petersen, he said.

“If we are cheating and leaving it to our (defensemen) and our goaltenders, we probably won’t move on,” Nachbaur said. “We’ve got to be committed as an entire unit out on the ice to do what we do best.”

Defenseman Matt Sozanski said Victoria does a good job of capitalizing on mistakes.

The Royals “prey on teams that turn the puck over a lot. That’s something we are going to have to stay away from,” he said. “Overall I think they are a skilled, fast team and we have to watch out.”

Still, Nachbaur said he’s pleased how players such as Markson Bechtold and Presten Kopeck have played some of their best hockey at the end of the year.

“There are teams that are pulling out their golf clubs and getting out their baseball mitts,” Nachbaur said. “We’ve done it through a lot of adversity. You know what, we’ve learned to adapt.”