Last season, the Michigan Gray Wolves had a frustrating season: they finished with the second-most points in the league, but were shut out of the SHL Finals thanks to the Anchorage Igloos. This year they turned the tables, seizing the Western division lead early and holding off the Igloos on the way to their first Finals berth. The win came at a cost, however, as the Wolves will enter the Finals missing a key player.
Michigan entered the final week of the season on the brink of clinching, leading Anchorage by eight points with five games remaining. But they suffered a surprising setback on Saturday, blowing a 2-0 third-period lead and losing to Dakota while Anchorage turned aside Quebec 4-1. Compounding the problems for the Wolves, LW Vladimir Beruschko crumpled awkwardly after taking a puck to the lower leg and left the game. The team later confirmed that Beruschko appears to be finished for the season. The winger was a stalwart on Michigan’s first line this season, providing strong play on both ends; he finished the year with 4 goals and 38 assists.
After the game, Wolves coach Ron Wright called out his team for a lack of effort. “It seems that some of the guys in our locker room think we’ve already clinched it,” said Wright in his postgame press conference. “Well, we haven’t won a damn thing yet. And if we’re going to keep playing like this, Anchorage is going to come right up and take it away from us. We’re going to have to do this without Vlad, so everybody better be ready to step up.”
The Wolves responded the next night, downing Hershey 3-1 and pushing the Igloos to the verge of elimination. On Tuesday, Michigan toppled hapless Saskatchewan by the same 3-1 margin to punch their ticket to the Finals. In an emotional locker-room celebration, Wright fought back tears as he saluted his players. “When we got together in training camp, I told you that we had the talent here to go all the way, if we were willing to work for it,” Wright said. “You’ve given it everything I could have asked for, and this is your reward. Savor it!”
By all accounts, the Wolves followed their coach’s instructions and savored it immensely. The team reportedly partied hard the rest of the week and staggered through their final two games, particularly their season-ending 5-1 loss to Anchorage. This time, even the famously hard-driving Wright declined to admonish his team for not working hard. “They deserve to have a little fun,” the coach said with a wink. “Just as long as they dial it back up in time for the Finals.”
According to his players, Wright needn’t be worried. “I guarantee you, nobody in this room thinks we’ve reached our goal yet,” said C Hunter Bailes. “We won the division, and that’s sweet. But we all started this season with one goal, and that was to win the Vandy. If we don’t get there, we’re not going to be satisfied. We’ve got one more step to go, and we’ll be ready.”