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Road, sweet road works for Chiefs

Winterhawks fire blanks in WHL West finals opener
by: CHRIStopher Onstott Portland's Nino Niederreiter tries to gain control of the puck, with teammate Ryan Johansen (right) also helping against the Spokane defense. The Chiefs won 2-1 Friday night to take a 1-0 lead in the WHL Western Conference finals. The best-of-seven series continues with Game 2 at 5 p.m. Sunday, also at the Rose Garden.

That's the old road-ice advantage for you.

The Spokane Chiefs drew first blood in the WHL Western Conference finals Friday night, beating the Winterhawks 2-1 at the Rose Garden.

In a backwards first-round series a year ago, the road team won all seven games as Portland beat Spokane to advance.

Mike Johnston wasn't hearing anything about the continuation of a trend, however.

'It's a different year,' the Portland coach said. 'We have a different team. The series has just started. (The Chiefs) have the upper hand right now. We'll try to regain it.'

In winning eight of 10 playoff games against Everett and Kelowna, Portland rained shots on goal at opposing goaltenders, launching as many as 55 and as few as 37.

The West finals opener was against a much tougher foe, and it showed. The Winterhawks were outshot 43-28, and it was 43-23 before the Hawks waged a furious rally that fell short over the final few minutes.

That didn't seem to bother Johnston, who bristled a bit when I suggested the Chiefs had dominated his team.

'We had five or six great scoring chances, and missed open nets,' he said. 'It was a 2-1 game. Yeah, they had a lot of shots, but they were harmless shots. A lot of them were from outside, long range.

'We put two through the crease in the second period that would have made it a 1-1 game. (Spokane goalie James) Reid made that phenomenal save on (Sven) Bartschi. ... we probably had better grade-A chances than they did. They got the first goal ... but they didn't have many good chances. It was a fairly even game.'

Johnston is right about Reid's save on Bartschi, who had backhanded a shot into a seemingly open net with just inside six minutes remaining and Spokane ahead 2-0. Reid somehow snared it with his glove.

From that point, Portland's energy seemed to increase, and the puck stayed down at the Spokane end most of the rest of the way. The Hawks finally got on the board on a Ryan Johansen rebound with 24.1 seconds left. It was too little, too late.

Nino Niederreiter wants to see more of the Hawks' late-game fury in Sunday's Game 2.

'That's the way we should play for 60 minutes,' Portland's star left wing said. The Chiefs 'played better than us. They deserved to win tonight.

'I don't know if we were too scared, or we didn't know what to expect. Everybody knows we have to give more. I'm pretty sure Sunday is going to be a totally different game.'

Johnston was right on another count. The Hawks failed to put the puck on net at least a half-dozen times when a well-placed shot could have resulted in a goal.

'I had a couple of good opportunities and didn't score,' Niederreiter said. 'I have to better myself, I know that.'

Niederreiter felt the Hawks made it easy for Reid, the Western Conference's Goaltender of the Year winner.

'We have to get more shots at Reid,' Niederreiter said. 'We made him strong. We had some great opportunities at open nets, and we didn't score. Every goaltender looks great if you don't score those goals, right? He played solid, but he didn't have many danger shots to worry about.'

The Hawks weren't horrible Friday night - just not good enough to beat a very good Spokane team. The crowd of 7,642 never got into it until Johansen finally lit the lamp.

'We were average,' Portland's Brad Ross said. 'We came out a little flat. Some nights you just come out flat. That's the good thing about hockey. You have another game ahead of you to focus on and do a little bit better.

'We weren't at our best. That's unacceptable in playoff hockey. Next time, we'll come out with a lot better effort.'

The loss was particularly disappointing in that Spokane was without 53-goal scorer Tyler Johnson, the conference's Player of the Year, who sat out under a league-mandated one-game suspension.

'They have a lot of good guys on their team,' Ross observed, 'and they didn't even have their best player.'

Johnston said the Hawks weren't trying to capitalize on Johnson's absence.

'We want to try to win every game we can,' he said. 'Johnson is going to be a big factor for them when he comes back in. He's a very good player. But I know we can pick up our game, as well. We have guys on our side who can be a lot better.

'That's what we have to expect, and they're probably saying the same on their side. In the playoffs, you have to improve every game. No matter whether you win or lose, you have to be better next time.'

All is not lost. After Game 2, the series swings for the next two contests in Spokane, where the Hawks were 3-2 during the regular season after going 4-0 in the playoffs last spring.

But they shouldn't count on road-ice advantage. Winning Sunday at home would be a good idea if they want to make their dream of a WHL championship and a Memorial Cup berth a reality.