So far this season, the Michigan Gray Wolves have maintained a steady lead in the West all season. They’ve known they can’t rest easy, however, as the defending champion Anchorage Igloos have gotten past their early-season stumbles and are hot on Michigan’s heels, just waiting for the leaders to stumble.
The Igloos got their opportunity on Friday, after a rare bad week by the Wolves allowed Anchorage to whittle down a deficit that had reached double digits as recently as Sunday.
“This has been a brutal race,” said Michigan C Hunter Bailes. “You kill it all year, then you hit one bump in the road and suddenly you’re at risk of getting left behind.”
Michigan opened the door for the Igloos by losing three in a raw, a surprising development for a team that had lost only five games all season prior to that and hadn’t had even back-to-back losses. On Sunday, the Wolves fell behind early to red-hot Dakota and couldn’t quite complete the rally in a 4-3 loss. On Tuesday, Michigan suffered a shocking 3-2 overtime loss to Seattle despite holding the Sailors to a mere 15 shots. On Wednesday, they dropped another nail-biter to New York, again by a 3-2 score.
Meanwhile, the Igloos went on a three-game winning streak. By the time the travel-weary Wolves arrived at Arctic Circle Arena on Friday, Anchorage had a chance to get within two points with a win.
Prior to the game, Michigan coach Ron Wright stressed the stakes of the game for both teams. “A couple weeks ago, [the Igloos] said they were treating these head-to-head matchups like playoff games,” said Wright. “Well, here we are. This is a chance for us to show that we’re the class of this division.”
Unsurprisingly, Friday’s game was tense, well-played, and highly competitive. The first period wound up scoreless, as Wolves goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist rebounded from his recent stretch of subpar play to turn aside 15 Anchorage shots. Meanwhile, Igloos netminder Ty Worthington stopped 11 shots on his end.
“The last couple of games, we’ve been sleepwalking a little bit early on,” said Bailes. “But today, we were in top gear from the drop of the puck. Both teams were. We both know the stakes.”
The temperature on the Michigan bench got a few degrees warmer when the Igloos broke out on an odd-man rush, and star Jake Frost beat Lundquist glove-side to put the home team ahead. Wright, who hasn’t hesitated to chew his team out for lackadaisical effort, didn’t yell this time. Instead, he told them in measured tones: “Well, you let them get the jump on us. Time to get back.”
After taking the lead, though, the Igloos opted for a more defensive posture, focusing on keeping the Wolves from starting an offensive blitz rather than trying to increase their advantage. “With two teams this good, one goal could mean the game,” said Anchorage coach Sam Castor. “You don’t want to take a big risk and wind up letting them take advantage and have an odd-man rush on you.”
Time and again throughout the second period, the Igloos stymied Michigan in the neutral zone, keeping the Wolves from gaining entry to the offensive zone. “It’s like they built a damn wall on the blue line,” said Wright. “They just weren’t letting us through, whatever it took.”
Finally, with about six minutes left in the second, Michigan’s third line finally broke through Anchorage’s intense pressure. Wolves LW Travis Gauss eluded a pair of Igloos defenders, then slid a pass at the blue line to D Patrick Banks, who fed RW Benoit Poulin for a tip-in to tie the score at 1. The Wolves bench thumped their sticks on the boards in vigorous approval.
The tie persisted through the end of the period, setting up a furious final stanza as both teams went all out to secure a win. The Wolves found themselves in trouble early, as D “Mad Max” Madison was hit with a double minor for clipping Frost. Michigan managed to kill the penalty, however, and shortly after Bailes slipped a shot between Worthington’s pads to give the Wolves their first lead.
“That felt real good,” said Bailes. “This was one of those games that you give everything you’ve got, and I’m glad I was the one to put us over the top.”
Before he and the Wolves could celebrate, though, they had to battle through a furious comeback attempt by the Igloos, and kill another power play, over the final dozen minutes. They held firm, though, and emerged with the 2-1 win. Lundquist stopped 34 shots to secure the victory.
“About time I got back on track,” said Lundquist. “I’d been a blink slow the last few games, which isn’t like me. But today, I think the adrenaline kept me on my toes.”
Instead of seeing their lead shrink to two points, Michigan ended the week six points up on the Igloos. Wright, though, said the race was far from over. “Is this an inflection point in the season? Maybe,” the coach said. “But we damn sure better not take our foot off the gas. I know Anchorage won’t. We’ve got a long way to go.”