The Tri-City Americans and Spokane Chiefs will meet in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs, but the teams couldn't wait until next weekend to get things going. Saturday night, fans got a preview of things to come.
Blake Gal, on a 2-on-1 with Brenden Kichton, scored 34 seconds into overtime to lead the Chiefs to a 3-2 victory before a rowdy crowd of 5,987 at Toyota Center.
"It was a close game and a physical game, and we had more than enough chances to win," Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. "We wipe the slate clean and start again Friday. We have a week off, and we are going to put it to good use. We have some things to work on and we'll try and get some guys back in the lineup."
The Americans (40-26-2-3, 85 points), who have lost four in a row, will finish the regular season today at Everett.
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Spokane (44-25-2-0, 90 points), which has won five in a row, finishes the season today at Portland.
Tied at 2-2 after regulation, the Chiefs wasted no time in putting the game away.
Kichton took the first shot on Troy Trombley, who stopped the puck, but the rebound went to the opposite side of the net, where Gal had an open net.
"That was a nice shot by Kichton," Gal said. "You put the puck on net and good things happen. It's nice to see that actually happen."
All even at one goal apiece after two periods, the Chiefs struck first in the third with a power-play goal by Dylan Walchuk at 5:55.
Two minutes later, Justin Feser made it 2-all, taking a back-handed pass from Jesse Mychan and beating Garret Hughson for his 44th goal of the season and his 350th career point.
"We all just try to be around the net," Feser said. "I had a thought Mychan would throw it on net, and he knew I would be back side. It landed right on my stick."
Feser rang the puck off the left pipe just 56 seconds into the game, but it would be almost 14 minutes later before Connor Rankin put the Americans on the board just 16 seconds into a power play.
Taking a pass from Drydn Dow just over the blue line, Rankin split Spokane's Reid Gow and Dylan Walchuk on the way to the net, where he put the puck over Hughson's right shoulder at 14:16 for his 31st goal of the season.
Spokane's Jeremy McIntosh tied the score at 1-1 at 12:34 of the second, beating Trombley up high from the slot for his first goal of the season in his 64th game.
Hughson stopped all 13 of the Americans shots in the second, including a couple of impressive glove saves.
Trombley finished with 32 saves, including 11 in the first and 13 in the third.
The Americans and Chiefs will begin their series March 22-23 at Spokane Arena.
Games 3, 4 and 5, if necessary, will be played March 26, 28 and 30 at Toyota Center. If needed, Game 6 would be April 2 in Spokane.
If the series stretches to Game 7, Spokane would host the final game April 3.
If the final regular-season game between the teams is any indication of things to come, the playoffs should be a doozy.
"The playoffs are starting and we have to set the tone," said Americans veteran defenseman Zach Yuen. "We have to let them know we are going to give them a war."
The Americans handed out their team awards after the game. Feser earned the Three Stars Award and was named Offensive Player of the Year and the team's Most Valuable Player, finishing the season with 44 goals and 59 assists. Feser also earned the UA Local 598 Hardest Working Player of the Year. Yuen and Dow shared Defenseman of the Year honors, while Parker Bowles and Beau McCue shared Rookie of the Year honors. McCue also was the Scholastic Player of the Year. Rankin was the Most Sportsmanlike Player, and Mitch Topping was the Todd Klassen Humanitarian of the Year. Eleanor Watson was named Volunteer of the Year, while Red Lion Hotels-Columbia Center was the Corporate Sponsor of the Year. ... Tri-City goalie Eric Comrie was on hand to present Second Harvest with a check for $522 as part of the Comrie Saves Hunger program.
*Annie Fowler: 582-1574; email@example.com; Twitter: @tchicequeen