The Spokane Chiefs are in a familiar spot. They just finished their second consecutive season with at least 40 wins and are rewarded with a first-round playoff date with the Portland Winterhawks.
Except this time, it’s the Chiefs who have home ice, thanks to Seattle’s 6-5 victory against Portland on Sunday. Game 1 is Friday night at the Arena.
That’s important for Spokane, because the Chiefs were considerably better at home this season. The Chiefs were an impressive 24-7-0-3 at home and just 16-14-2-2 on the road. Spokane only allowed 89 goals in front of the home crowd and 133 on the road.
Portland beat Spokane in seven games in last year’s first round. The Chiefs erased a 3-1 series deficit before falling in the final game in Portland. If this year’s series reaches a seventh game, it’ll be in Spokane.
The Chiefs are playing their best hockey of the season and have a full, healthy lineup. They also recently added Bear Hughes, who finished his season with the Spokane Braves before joining the team for the last two games of the season. Hughes scored twice on Saturday and gives Spokane some added depth.
Head coach Dan Lambert is comfortable with where his team is heading into the playoffs.
“I’m really happy that we’re healthy,” he said. “I think it’s important that we have a real good week of practice and preparation and see what happens on Friday night.”
The Chiefs didn’t have a full lineup until the second half of the season due to injuries, NHL commitments and World Juniors participation.
The Chiefs and Winterhawks split the season series, with each team winning three times.
Spokane will have to deal with Portland’s Joachim Blichfeld, the league’s top scorer this season. Blichfeld had 53 goals and 61 assists for 114 points. Cody Glass was Portland’s second-leading scorer with 69 points, but those came in just 38 games. Glass has been out with an injury, but he is expected to be ready for the playoffs.
The Chiefs don’t have anybody with numbers like Blichfeld, but they do have quality depth. The Chiefs enjoy the luxury of having multiple players who can put the puck in the net.
Adam Beckman and Jake McGrew each surpassed the 30-goal mark, with Beckman finishing his rookie season with 32 and McGrew adding 31. Four other players scored at least 20 times this season.
Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who played in just 32 games, finished with 20 goals, 23 assists and 43 points. That was good for 1.34 points per game, tops on the team. Riley Woods led the team with 75 points.
After Blichfeld’s 53 goals, Portland’s next best goal scorer was Jake Gricius with 27.
Of course, when it comes to playoff hockey, it’s not always the goal scoring but the goaltending that can turn a series.
Lambert said Bailey Brkin is the likely the Spokane starter in net, though Reece Klassen provides a capable backup in case a switch is needed. The Winterhawks also have a nice goaltending tandem in Shane Farkas and Joel Hofer, who was acquired this season in a trade with Swift Current.
“I think Bailey is the guy we’re going to probably start with,” Lambert said. “I don’t know that 100 percent but certainly by Wednesday or Thursday we’ll make a decision.”
Brkin started the first three games of last year’s first-round series with Portland before being replaced by Dawson Weatherill.
Brkin finished the season with a .914 save percentage. In 13 appearances for Spokane, Klassen posted a .905 save percentage.
Portland’s goalies each had save percentages above .900 as well, with Farkas posting .906 and Hofer at .911 in 18 appearances after being traded.
The Chiefs and Winterhawks have a rich playoff history. Spokane erased a 3-0 series deficit in 1996 to storm back and win four straight and win the series in seven games. Then in 1998, the teams met in the Western Conference Finals with Portland prevailing in seven games.
The Chiefs won in seven games after trailing three games to two in 2003. In 2010, the teams went seven games again, with the road team winning each game. Portland took Game 7 that year in Spokane.
Last year’s seven-game series was the latest chapter, and this year’s version starts Friday night in Spokane.
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