After the Hershey Bliss were embarrassed 5-1 in the first game of the SHL Finals, many observers were ready to declare the series over. The heavily favored Anchorage Igloos had bludgeoned the Bliss, goading them into taking foolish penalties and stonewalling their shots. Although Bliss coach Chip Barber pointed out that it “only counts as one loss,” many wondered if Hershey would be able to recover.
Turns out that they could. The Bliss shook off the sting of the previous game, and although it required overtime, they managed to top the Igloos 2-1, tying the series at 1-1.
“When it comes to the playoffs, you’ve got to have a short memory,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet, who scored the game-winning goal. “If you led a bad game get in your head, you might as well forfeit. We weren’t going to let that happen.”
In the first game, Hershey committed four penalties in the first period and giving up three goals, digging themselves into a big hole that they were never able to climb out of. With that in mind, Barber cautioned his team to avoid taking cheap penalties in this game. It appeared that the Bliss hadn’t heeded their coach’s words when, less than a minute into the game, linesman Ken McGillis made a controversial offsides call that nullified a potential odd-man rush for Hershey. A frustrated Henry Constantine slammed his stick into the boards and was assessed a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I was so mad at myself,” said Constantine. “I thought we’d been ripped off on a bad call, then I went and made it worse.”
But the Bliss managed to kill off the penalty, and avoided taking any others in the period, which ended with no score. Hershey also managed to avoid taking any penalties in the second period, after which the game still remained scoreless. Through two periods, the game was about as evenly matched as possible: both teams had taken 18 shots, committed one minor penalty, and not managed to record a goal.
“Coming into the locker room after that second period with it still 0-0 really made us feel good,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine. “Our confidence level was rising like, ‘Hey, we can hang with these guys. And we can win this.'”
In the third period, Hershey went on the power play two minutes in when Igloos D Olaf Martinsson received a double minor for spearing Bliss LW Russell Nahorniak. The Bliss needed only five second to convert, with Valentine blistering a close-range shot off of Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s shoulder and into the net. “That really silenced the crowd,” said Valentine. “They knew that the way we were both playing, that might be the only goal of the game.”
The Igloos stepped up their pace after that in an effort to tilt the ice and overwhelm the Bliss. Hershey held strong for much of the period, but with just under four minutes remaining, Igloos C Jake Frost and LW Jerry Koons got loose on a two-man breakaway that ended with Koons going top-shelf and finding the back of the net to tie it up. The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena exploded as their heroes received new life.
The din only got louder a couple minutes later when Bliss LW Vonnie McLearen accidentally clipped Igloos LW Ben Summers in the face and got a minor for high-sticking. The Igloos sent Worthington to the bench for a 6-on-4 advantage. “We knew we were really going to be tested,” said Valentine. “We knew we needed to stand strong.”
Stand strong they did, fighting off the penalty and sending the game to overtime. The Bliss dominated the play in overtime but couldn’t quite break through until Igloos D Hans Mortensen was whistled for slashing, putting Hershey on the power play.
The Bliss didn’t press or panic with the man advantage. They kept control of the puck, passing it around and waiting for an opportunity. Sweet finally saw one when Bliss D Reese Milton faked a shot and slid it over to Sweet. With Worthington out of position, the Bliss winger was able to find the open net, ending the game and giving Hershey a much-needed victory.
After the game, Barber highly praised the work of netminder Brandon Colt. After a rough outing in Game 1, some fans were calling for Colt to be benched in favor of backup Milo Stafford. But the coach kept faith in his starter, and Colt rewarded him with a strong game, stopping 33 shots.
“A lot of people were saying Brandon couldn’t handle it at this level, that he melts in the clutch like a bag of Kisses in a hot car,” said Barber. “I don’t think they’ll be saying that after tonight. This is a wide-open series.”