Chiefs top Winterhawks in OT
The first playoff game of 2018 didn't end the way the Portland Winterhawks wanted.
But it was the start of the game that the home team was lamenting after a 4-3 loss to the Spokane Chiefs on Saturday at Memorial Coliseum.
Luke Toporowski batted home the game-winner 2:15 into overtime to give Spokane the victory in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Western Hockey League playoff series in front of 5,732 fans.
Game 2 is at 5 p.m. Sunday at the coliseum.
Toporowski carried the puck up the right wing with speed and went to the net. Portland goalie Cole Kehler blocked the puck, but it bounced into the air and Toporowski stayed with it to score.
"You look at overtime goals … sometimes they're funny bounces like that," Winterhawks coach/GM/VP Mike Johnston said.
There was nothing fluky about Spokane's strong start, though. The Chiefs used a determined forecheck and strength with the puck to gain some early momentum.
Johnston noted that more than half of his lineup was in its first WHL playoff game, and some nervousness showed.
"We could have won more puck battles, especially early in the game, and our puck movement could have been better early in the game. Our game got stronger as it went along," Johnston said.
Defenseman Dennis Cholowski agreed with Johnston's assessment.
"I'd say that's what hurt us is our slow start. In the playoffs for sure you can't come out like that," Cholowski said. "We have to be better tomorrow in the first period."
The formula to make that happen, he said, is simple plays, avoiding neutral-zone turnovers, and establishing a strong forecheck of their own.
Cholowski, a Detroit Red Wings prospect, did his part. He scored two second-period goals as Portland three times erased a one-goal deficit.
Portland never led, however, and its goals came from defensemen.
Cholowski took a feed from Cody Glass for a slam-dunk power-play goal 48 seconds into the second period. Cholowski tied the score at 3-3 with a wrap-around goal at 17:02 of the second period.
"The net is where you have to be to score goals, and I was definitely going to assert myself there," Cholowski said.
Henri Jokiharju scored the other Portland goal.
Kehler had a strong night in net. His 35 saves included a pair of tough stops against Jaret Anderson-Dolan in the first period and three big saves in the third period — twice denying Jake McGrew one-on-one and later stopping a Toporowski chance.
"I thought Cole was good from start to finish. The final one was kind of a lucky one," Johnston said.
Toporowski had two assists before his game-winner, and Riley Woods also had a goal and two assists for the Chiefs.
Spokane took a 2-1 lead 19 seconds after Cholowski's first goal. Woods was alone in front to slam home a feed from McGrew.
Jokiharju made it a 2-2 game with a wrister from the left circle 5:51 into the second period.
Hudson Elynuik put the Chiefs up 3-2 11:55 into the second period.
Portland gained territorial traction during a scoreless third period, out-shooting Spokane 20-10. But Birkin and the Chiefs withstood the pressure, killing off a pair of Winterhawks power plays along the way.
A too-many-men penalty against Spokane with 1:36 left gave Portland a late power play. The Hawks had five shots on goal before the third period ended, but goalie Bailey Brkin stopped them all.
Then, just after the power play expired at the start of overtime, Brkin was able to hold his ground when Kieffer Bellows found the puck on the doorstep.