With one of their regular defensemen suspended, Ty Smith played a whole lot the last time the Spokane Chiefs took the ice.
His extra minutes didn’t appear to hurt, as the Chiefs beat the Everett Silvertips 2-1, won their series in five games and advanced to the Western Conference Finals, which begin Friday night against Vancouver at the Langley (British Columbia) Events Centre.
Minutes aren’t officially tracked by the Western Hockey League, but internally the Chiefs do so. They won’t divulge that sort of intelligence, and coach Dan Lambert went the understated route when asked about Smith’s extra ice time.
“He played a little bit,” Lambert said after the team’s home practice on Wednesday.
“Every game is different when it comes to minutes,” Lambert added. “You get a five-goal lead and Ty Smith isn’t going to be out there half the game. … When you look at high-end players, no matter what level, they want to be on the ice. … in other sports, it’s the same thing. People want the ball.”
With Filip Kral suspended for Game 5 against Everett, Smith took over Kral’s spot on the second power-play unit. That meant Smith played just about every second of the Chiefs’ five power plays, in addition to his usual number of shifts on the team’s top defensive pair, alongside Nolan Reid.
“It’s definitely straining on the body, playing that many minutes,” Reid said. “But the mental side of it is you just gotta keep playing your own game, and if you are getting a little fatigued you just gotta slow things down and play a little easier game.”
It’s not so much tired legs but a tired brain that causes problems, forward Luc Smith said.
“As soon as you get out there for a long shift and your body, you can feel your legs are getting soft again. Well, your brain is doing the same thing,” the 20-year-old forward said. “That’s when you forget the shoulder check, and you forget the guy that’s behind you.”
As the home team during Games 3, 4 and 5 against Everett, the Chiefs had the benefit of getting the last change, meaning that after whistles the Silvertips set the five skaters on the ice and then the Chiefs got to set theirs. So if the Chiefs wanted Smith and Reid out against the Silvertips’ top forward line, they could make it happen in those situations.
But Lambert said he has confidently rotated through all three defensive pairs and all four forward lines throughout the playoffs, which has helped limit the team’s collective fatigue.
“The reality is we probably trusted everybody, and that’s critical,” Lambert said.
Line changes are a chess match between coaches as they maneuver to get the matchups they want on the ice. Lambert said he and assistant coach Scott Burt, who calls the defensive line pairings, are thinking many shifts ahead.
But their confidence in all three defensive pairs as well as the four forward lines gives them flexibility and means they don’t have to rely so heavily on certain players.
“It’s easier for us because we can play most of our D-men against their top lines,” Reid said. “For the most part, we just roll the lines.”
Everett allowed the fewest goals of any WHL team in the regular season and conceded only eight goals in a five-game opening-round series against Tri-City.
That meant the Chiefs couldn’t afford to fall behind too often, and for the most part they didn’t. Spokane gave up 10 goals in the five-game series.
“(Ty Smith) and ‘Reider’ do a good job leading back there as two veteran guys we rely on pretty heavily, but (Noah King) and (Kral), they back them up good, too, and as well as Bobby (Russell) and (Matt Leduc) and Egor (Arbuzov),” Luc Smith said. “They’ve all stepped up and played huge minutes and big moments for us, so you can’t really say it’s been one guy right now.”
The Giants will present another difficult challenge for the Chiefs’ back end. Through 10 playoff games they’ve scored 41 goals, the most per game in the league.
Vancouver won three of its four games against Spokane during the regular season, but the Chiefs won the most recent matchup.
“They have a deep team, two good goalies, six good (defensemen), four good lines,” Ty Smith said. “They’re going to try to play all their guys, and we’re gonna try to do the same.”
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