Tri-City's Brendan Shinnimin has scored a lot of goals this season, but none bigger than the game-winner Wednesday night in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Spokane Chiefs.
With the score tied at 2 and less than 5 minutes left in the game, Shinnimin took a pass from Brian Williams and beat Spokane goalie Eric Williams from the slot with 4:18 left in the game to lead the Americans to a 3-2 victory over Spokane at Toyota Center and into the Western Conference finals.
"Words can't really describe the feeling of that (goal) going in, and the feeling of our team after the game," Shinnimin said. "A lot of people might have thought it wouldn't have been this many games, but the guys in our room knew what they were capable of and what kind of team they were."
Tri-City advances to play Portland, which defeated Kamloops 2-0 in Game 7 of their semifinal series. The Blazers, who rallied from a 3-0 deficit to tie the series at 3-3, fell short in knocking off the Winterhawks.
The Americans will host Portland on Friday in the first game of the finals.
The victory gave the Americans their first playoff series victory over Spokane since 1995.
"If you caught one of these games, you were treated to some of the best junior hockey entertainment you are going to see," Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. "Both teams did everything they could. What else can you ask?
"There wasn't one shift in the last 12 days or seven games that either team could have relaxed. Every game was decided by one goal -- two goals was the empty net. No team had a lead of more than two goals. There was not once where you thought it was over."
Spokane coach Don Nachbaur was on the winning end of this same series last year, but his team couldn't hold on this time around.
"It was pretty intense," Nachbaur said. "It would have been a Cinderella story, where we finished and how young we are in certain areas of our team. We took them to the well. I know they are over there saying this wasn't an easy series. I think we took a lot out of them for the next series."
This marks the fourth time in five years that either Tri-City or Spokane has advanced to the Western Conference finals. They played each other in 2008, with Spokane winning an epic seven-game series that featured five overtime games -- three of which went double overtime. Spokane went on to win the Memorial Cup that year.
Tri-City won the Western Conference title in 2010, while Spokane lost to Portland in the finals last year.
Tied at 1-1 after the second period, Mitch Holmberg put the Chiefs out front 2-1 with a goal at 5:47 of the third.
Spokane held onto the lead until late in the period when Tri-City's Malte Strömwall knocked a rebound past Williams at 14:38.
Just 1:04 later, Shinnimin scored to give Tri-City the lead for good.
"We had so many chances and I thought we played so well," Hiller said. "It was a little disheartening to see us down that late in the game. But we've done this before, we've come back late. I knew there was a belief there. Unlikely heroes like Strömwall and Williams and a likely hero in Shinnimin."
The Americans had plenty of chances in the first period, outshooting the Chiefs 14-4, but could not get the puck past Williams, who finished the night with 45 saves.
"I think our goalie gave us an all-world performance tonight," Nachbaur said. "He has been spectacular the whole series."
Spokane's Mike Aviani was awarded a penalty shot at 16:59 after being hauled down by Tri-City defenseman Mitch Topping.
Aviani failed to take advantage of his opportunity as Ty Rimmer stopped him at the right post, but the Chiefs would scored two minutes later.
Working on their first power play, the Chiefs found the net at 18:48 as Blake Gal's shot from the far edge of the left face-off circle was deflected past Rimmer by Dominik Uher.
Trailing 1-0 heading into the second period, the Americans wasted no time in evening the score.
Derek Ryckman sent the puck toward the net from the right wall, Shinnimin deflected the puck and Williams cleaned up at the right post at 5:03 to even things up.
"That was awesome. I was so happy," Williams said. "Getting a goal in Game 7, it doesn't get any better than that. Just like what you see in the movies, the two rivals going back and forth, but I'm actually in it."
And the celebration afterward?
"It was hectic," Williams said. "First, I'm a few inches shorter than everyone, I'm in a forest of beige. Just seeing everyone so happy was great. This hasn't sunk in. I'm going to have to sleep on it."
Shinnimin, who won the regular season scoring title with 134 points, continued his point streak in the post season, which now has reached 34 games. Shinnimin, who leads the Americans with 18 points in the playoffs, has not been held without a point since Jan. 29 at Calgary.