SPOKANE — The score was tied with less than 4 minutes to play. It looked to be another Tri-City-Spokane overtime thriller on the horizon until one loose puck changed the course of the game.
Blake Gal scored what would be the game winner with 3:29 remaining in regulation, and Mike Aviani added an insurance goal at 18:11 as the Chiefs beat the Americans 6-4 on Saturday night at Spokane Arena to take a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.
“We found a way to win,” Spokane coach Don Nachbaur said. “The first two periods, we felt comfortable with our game. We gave up what I thought were easy goals, but we could have easily had more goals at the other end. They hung in there — 4-4 doesn’t surprise me. They are a good team. Give them credit. They found a way to get back in the game, yet we found a way to win.”
Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5, will be played Tuesday, Thursday and next Saturday 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.
“We know it won’t be easy in Tri,” Nachbaur said. “You just have to look at the next one and put this one behind us. We need some adjustments in our game, and I think they will have some, too.”
For Americans coach Jim Hiller, a split in Spokane would have been ideal. Now, his team must defend home ice.
“We have to win Tuesday — that much is clear,” Hiller said. “They have been close games, and it will be tight the rest of the way. We aren’t going anywhere.”
Tri-City trailed 4-3 entering the third period, and while Lucas Nickles and Parker Bowles had quality chances early in the period, they could not get anything past Spokane goalie Eric Williams.
At 8:09, the Americans were awarded a power play, and they used it to their advantage.Malte Strömwall brought the puck in the zone and motored around the net, where he slipped the puck to Jesse Mychan, who was camped out near the left post. Mychan lifted the puck into the net at 8:41 to even the score at 4-4.
With time winding down and the puck being batted around in front of Americans goalie Troy Trombley, Dylan Walchuk finally got it and dished it off to Gal, who beat Trombley at 16:31.
“Credit to Dylan Walchuk with the forecheck,” said Gal, who played his 50th playoff game. “I was fortunate to get the puck. It helps to have experience in the playoffs, but it’s going to be hard to play three down there.”
Mychan said the Americans can ill afford those costly mistakes.
“It was a misread in the defensive zone,” he said. “We need to pick a guy up in the slot when the puck is loose. Being down 2-0 means nothing to us. We need to bring it every night. We need to outwork them and get the bounces. We are going home, and we will get the support from our fans. We play them 12 times a year. We know what they do. It all comes down to details during the playoffs. That’s what will win the series.”
As with every Tri-City-Spokane game, no lead is ever safe.
Trailing 3-2 after the first, the Chiefs netted a pair of goals in the second to take a 4-3 lead.
After Trombley stopped Mitch Holmberg, the puck was sent around the net, where Holmberg fed Gal out front for his second goal of the series at 4:11 at a 3-3 game.
With 6 minutes left in the second, Todd Fiddler intercepted a pass from Matthew Gelinas that was intended for Drydn Dow. Fiddler buried the puck in the net for a 4-3 lead.
The Americans had just four shots on goal in the second, with just one quality opportunity, but Williams robbed Bowles at 11:43.
After struggling to score Friday night in Game 1, the Americans were very proficient Saturday night, scoring three goals on four shots in the first period.
Playing 4-on-4, Dow gave the Americans a 1-0 lead at 5:24 with his first WHL playoff goal.Spokane answered with a pair of goals in 33 seconds.
On the first, the puck ricocheted off a skate and into the slot, where Liam Stewart whipped it into the net past Trombley at 6:59.
Tyler King put the Chiefs up 2-1 at 7:32, beating Trombley from the right circle.
Less than a minute later, Bowles knotted things up at 2-2, giving the Americans two goals on three shots.
Marcus Messier gave Tri-City a 3-2 lead at 10:51, picking up a rebound off a Lucas Nickles shot and lifting the puck into the net.
Trombley denied Holmberg with 42.3 seconds left in the period to preserve the lead. Trombley finished with 24 saves.
Notes: Justin Feser played his 60th career playoff game Saturday ranking him fourth all time. He is one game behind Mason Wilgosh and Tyler Schmidt, and five behind second-place Kruise Reddick (65). With an assist on Dow’s goal, Feser tied Daymond Langkow for fifth all-time with 30 playoff assists.
w Annie Fowler: 582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tchicequeen