SPOKANE — Cheers and thunderous body checks echoed off the rafters Sunday as Washington state’s first NHL team made its preseason debut in arguably its biggest hockey hotbed.
It seemed fitting the Kraken would play its debut game against an actual preseason opponent, the soon-to-be bitter rival Vancouver Canucks, in a city of 217,000 that once was home to minor leaguers such as Emile “The Cat” Francis and Don Cherry, not to mention current top local NHL products Tyler Johnson, Kailer Yamamoto and Derek Ryan. Sunday night’s eventual 5-3 win by the Kraken featured its share of twists, turns and fortunate bounces in front of 10,208 raucous fans at Spokane Arena, though the end result ultimately favored a visiting “home” side that largely controlled play throughout.
“It was exciting coming in,” said Ryan Donato, who had one of three power-play goals by the Kraken. “I think we knew how much of a blessing it was to be able to come here with the excitement. I think that got to us a little bit at the beginning … but once we got comfortable and played the way we knew we could with our systems, we did well.”
It wound up being a Morgan Geekie goal directly off his own faceoff that somehow eluded freshly inserted Canucks goalie Spencer Martin just 50 seconds into the third period that snapped a 3-3 tie and decided things. Geekie would add a power-play insurance marker midway through the final period to seal things, but in reality this game was never really that close.
The Kraken held a 27-8 shot advantage through two periods and only some fortunate breaks for the Canucks kept them from being run out of the rink early. Feeding off the electric crowd at one of their three neutral-site preseason home games, chosen because Climate Pledge Arena isn’t yet ready, the Kraken laid the body on early and had a number of chances in close.
The local fans made it obvious early there’d be nothing “neutral” about them. They’d lined the arena concourse dozens deep well before puck-drop to buy Kraken merchandise at several souvenir stands, then waved it around feverishly during the opening minutes.
Even Canucks coach Travis Green, who played for the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs for four seasons in the 1980s, had to feel on hostile turf as the Kraken ran up a 9-1 shots advantage and was awarded the game’s first power play. But in an example of what Donato likely meant about the atmosphere getting to his teammates, the Kraken tossed the puck around a little too hurriedly during the man-advantage and took several ill-advised point shots that were blocked.
The last of those, by Dennis Cholowski, bounced straight to a streaking Jack Rathbone as he stepped out of the penalty box. Rathbone had a partial breakaway down the left side and fired a shot from the faceoff circle that beat Philipp Grubauer short-side to his right to put the Canucks ahead 1-0 at the 10:28 mark.
That goal, seemingly out of nowhere, briefly quieted the crowd and set the Kraken on its heels. Riley Sheahan then took a penalty moments later, and Brock Boesner made it 2-0 with a quick wrist-shot from the right circle that eluded Grubauer.
“There were a couple of awkward bounces and that’s what happens,” Donato said. “And at the end of the day, you’ve just got to play hockey. At the end of the day, we knew it could have easily gone the other way.”
And that it did, with the Kraken eventually settling down and running up a 13-5 shots total after one. The heavy forechecking approach didn’t let up in the second period and paid early dividends as Nathan Bastian kept working behind the net and fed Sheahan out front for a bang-bang goal that made it 2-1 just 2:32 in.
Then, on the power play six minutes later, Jared McCann took a feed from Cholowski and lifted a high wrister past Canucks goalie Arturs Silovs to tie the game. McCann centered a top-line with wingers Jordan Eberle and Jaden Schwartz, and the trio shared first-unit power-play duties as well.
“Obviously we had some good shifts tonight when it was 5-on-5 and even on the power-play there we were looking very good and moving the puck really well,” McCann said. “I’m really excited. Those are two easy players to play with.”
Fewer than three minutes later, another power play for the Kraken saw Eberle throw a perfect, cross-ice touch-pass to Donato, who one-timed it past Silovs for a 3-2 lead. It didn’t last long, as Niles Hoglander beat a cold-looking Chris Driedger — who’d just come on to replace Grubauer as planned — just one minute later to knot the game again at 3-3.
But the Kraken continued to outwork the Canucks, and Geekie’s goal early in the third on Martin allowed the Kraken’s first-ever game of any kind to have the kind of finish coach Dave Hakstol had hoped for.
Hakstol hadn’t done any power-play work in practices until Sunday morning. He’d placed Donato on the first power-play unit to see how he’d respond to being out there with the McCann, Eberle and Schwartz trio.
“The biggest key is that group was able to generate possession, which leads to offensive zone time,” he said. “And as a power play, that’s the first place to start — with that possession.”
As was, Hakstol said, the franchise starting with a win in this longtime hockey enclave.
“The opportunity to come here to Spokane and play in front of this kind of a crowd on night No. 1 of the exhibition season was awesome.”