The rivalry between the Spokane Chiefs and the Tri-City Americans comes naturally as the closest geographic opponents in the far-flung Western Hockey League.
This season, the series between the teams could spell the difference between a playoff spot or sitting home during the postseason.
The Chiefs entered play Friday one point ahead of Tri-City for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. One big advantage for Spokane – it has played three fewer games than the Americans. But with four games left in the season series, including the last game of regular season at Tri-City, anything can still happen.
But Friday was a good start in holding on to a potential postseason berth.
Berkly Catton scored two goals with an assist, stay-at-home defenseman Nathan Mayes had a career night, and the Chiefs beat the Americans 5-1 at a nearly full Arena.
Mayes had a goal – his first in the WHL – and two assists. The 17-year-old came into the game with seven points this season.
“Obviously, that was that was a fun one for us,” Mayes said. “Nice to get my first goal. I’ve been waiting a long time for that.”
Chiefs coach Ryan Smith spoke about the importance of the games against Tri-City.
“It’s one of the better rivalries (in the league),” he said. “You’ve got two really good fan bases, two really good organizations that have pride. They held serve last week in their barn and we wanted to do the same thing – which we did tonight. But we know next weekend back-to-back is massive. We will enjoy tonight but start to prepare for tomorrow and the next games as well.”
Midway through the first period, and playing 4-on-4, Chiefs defenseman Saige Weinstein was called for hooking, setting up 55 seconds of 4-on-3. Dawson Cowan made two quick saves and the Chiefs killed off both infractions successfully.
“(Cowan) is expecting to see some shots and not always get a lot of help and guys forget about that,” Smith said. “But yeah, he was really good. “
A neutral-zone turnover by Tri-City resulted in a late opportunity for the Chiefs. Shea Van Olm poked the puck to the blue line, where Rasmus Ekström spun and sent it to Mayes, entering the zone alone on the right wing. Mayes wound up and fired past Lukas Matecha for his first career WHL goal as the horn sounded on the first period.
After video review, the goal stood and the Chiefs led 1-0 after one period.
“I just saw the guy coming up the wall, so I tried to get up ice and just be involved in the play,” Mayes said. “I got a good bounce, came to me and just shot. I didn’t realize how close it was to the end (of the period) but got it through.”
“He made a nice play there on the first goal, and then got a little confidence,” Smith said. “Nathan has been really good as a rookie, so it’s nice to see him get his first goal.”
It took another video review – this one unusually long – but early in the second period the home team added to the lead. Catton deked a defender in open ice and drove to the net. He put the puck on his forehand and tried to beat Matecha stick side, but the goalie got a piece of it and the puck popped into the air and off the crossbar.
Matecha appeared to reach into the goal and pull in out midair, then dropped it after contact. After review, officials deemed the puck crossed the goal line for Catton’s team-leading 36th goal of the season.
A few minutes later, the Chiefs made it 3-0. Mayes drove to the net for another quality scoring chance, but his shot was deflected right to Van Olm, who knocked in the rebound at 7:51 of the period.
“I’m just trying to activate up the ice and then (Van Olm) made a great finish on that play,” Mayes said.
“The nets are important on both ends, and if you can get to theirs and control yours then you know good things are gonna happen,” Smith said. “It was a big goal and gave us a bit of a cushion there. (Van Olm) has been like that since he got here – he is pretty straightforward player.”
Tri-City got on the board 4 minutes later, with Cash Koch collecting his eighth goal of the season.
Ekström took a roughing call late in the period, but that didn’t stop the offense. After a clear, Conner Roulette picked up the puck in the neutral zone and slid it to Catton, who deked Matecha and dumped it into an open net with 48 seconds left in the second.
Spokane made it 5-1 less than 2 minutes into the third period as Roulette beat a defender to a loose puck and poked it past Matecha for his 33rd goal of the season. Mayes and Catton were awarded helpers on the play.
“We came into this game just knowing that we needed to win this game just because they’re so close in the standings,” Mayes said. “And obviously, that was a that was a big win for us.”