If the 3-3-1 playoff format doesn’t sit well with Spokane Chiefs fans, they can blame Paul McCartney.
It is McCartney’s upcoming concert – to be hosted April 28 at Spokane Arena and announced at a time when the Chiefs were outside the projected playoff bracket – that prompted the Chiefs and the Kamloops Blazers to discuss alternatives to the normal 2-2-1-1-1 series format long used by the Western Hockey League and many others.
But the Chiefs and Blazers are making the best of the structure, which was mutually agreed upon as the best alternative.
The series opens Friday in Kamloops, where the second-seeded Blazers will host the seventh-seeded Chiefs for three games in a row on Friday, Saturday and Monday.
Game 4 will be April 29 in Spokane. If Games 5 and 6 are necessary, they too would be in Spokane before a potential Game 7 back in Kamloops, a 7-hour drive away.
“On the positive side, if we can get a win or two up there, it puts us in the driver’s seat,” Spokane interim head coach Ryan Smith said Tuesday. “If we don’t, we still have some home games left.”
There are certainly some advantages to playing three games in a row in one venue, but Smith said, “The puck drops at 7 on Friday, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in Kamloops, Spokane or Winnipeg.”
That the Chiefs are in the playoffs at all is a credit to Smith, assistant coach Dustin Donaghy and a roster revitalized by the changes coaches made as well as the presence of some new faces who joined the team midseason.
Nick McCarry first joined the Chiefs in a trade – with Kamloops, no less – in January. Spokane’s players were quieter then, the 20-year-old said, but since Smith was named interim head coach in mid-February – replacing the fired Adam Maglio – the mood has changed.
“Now we can be ourselves, laugh, and we are tighter as a group,” said McCarry, who has 16 goals and 19 assists in 36 games with the Chiefs. “It’s a happier room, for sure, which helps out in everything.”
To get into the playoffs, Spokane had to win its final game of the regular season, a 4-2 road victory over the Victoria Royals, after losing 7-3 to the Royals the night before. Victoria finished a point behind the Chiefs and missed the playoffs.
The win-and-get-in nature of the game created something of a playoff atmosphere for the Chiefs, who are short on playoff experience. Team captain Bear Hughes and forward Erik Atchison are the only current roster members who have appeared in any playoff games with the Chiefs. Some newcomers like McCarry bring with them playoff experience with other clubs.
But then, that’s the case in Kamloops, too, said Luke Toporowski, who was sent to Kamloops in the trade for McCarry.
The 20-year-old Toporowski played in 14 playoff games in 2019 and seven the season before. That makes him one of the most playoff-seasoned players in the league, considering that the 2020 and 2021 postseasons were canceled due to the pandemic.
“It’s definitely a weird year for playoffs,” Toporowski said, “because no (team) really has playoff experience.”
Kamloops, which won the British Columbia Division with a 48-17-3-0 record, had the best goal differential in the 10-team Western Conference (plus-111). The Blazers are led by center Logan Stankoven, a Dallas Stars prospect who during the regular season finished with the third-most points (104) in the WHL. Over his past 10 games, Stankoven has 24 points and at least two in every game but one.
Blazers goalie Dylan Garand, a New York Rangers prospect, had the second-best goals-against average in the league this season (2.16). Garand and Stankoven are two of seven Blazers players who have been drafted by NHL teams.
But the Chiefs (24-39-4-1) can point to their 6-5 victory over the Blazers on April 1 – in Kamloops – as evidence that their roster can stick with their first-round opponent. That victory was the first of a key four-game winning streak for the Chiefs, who played nine of their final 10 regular-season games on the road.
“It was a huge (victory),” McCarry said of the 6-5 win over Kamloops.
“If we didn’t win those (four games), we didn’t have a chance to be here. It was unbelievable that we came together as a team and grinded out those wins.”
McCarry gave a lot of the credit for the turnaround to Smith, who was an assistant coach in Medicine Hat when McCarry played there during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons.
“Smitty’s an unbelievable coach now,” McCarry said. “He loves us to death. He’s always there for us and always wants to win.”
Smith said he and Donaghy simply aspired to give the Chiefs the kind of playing experience that they had in juniors. While the team has had its ups and downs, Smith said the credit goes to the players.
“We give them a game plan, and they go to it,” Smith said. “They’ve been open to change in the way we practice and the way we play. The relationship is strong between the players and the staff. We’re one unit, and we care about each other.
“It’s carried us this far, and hopefully it will carry us farther into the playoffs.”
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