Before the season, most SHL observers took it for granted that the Michigan Gray Wolves and Anchorage Igloos would wind up facing each other in the Western playoff series. They are widely regarded as the best teams in the division, and have taken turns winning the division since the SHL’s inception. As it turns out, the Wolves and Igloos did make the postseason, but the race didn’t unfold quite as expected.
Michigan led the West from wire-to-wire, and were never seriously threatened along the way. As usual, the Wolves’ success was built on its dominating, smothering defense; they allowed only 24.7 shots per game on average, more than two shots fewer than their closest competitor. This allowed the team to thrive despite the fact that goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist wasn’t quite up to his usual exceptional standards (38-12-4, 1.69 GAA, .936 save percentage).
“We’ve succeeded because we’ve adhered to our core identity,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright. “We haven’t forgotten that greatness is purchased with blood, sweat, and hard work. Will over skill, that’s what our team is about.”
Anchorage, meanwhile, experienced a much bumpier path to the playoffs. For much of the season, the Igloos seemed to be suffering the hangover of their upset loss to the Hershey Bliss in last year’s Finals. They struggled to keep their head above the .500 waterline for the first half of the season, with the upstart competitors in Seattle and Saskatchewan nipping at their heels. It got bad enough at one point that coach Sam Castor called out his team for their lackadaisical effort. But they finally got their season turned around after the trading deadline, going 19-3-2 down the stretch to make the playoffs going away.
“It took us a long time, too long, for us to get our heads in the right place,” said C Jake Frost, who led the team with 46 goals. “But we know that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We’ve rediscovered ourselves and our best hockey just at the right time. We’re confident that we can match up against any other team in the league, which is good, because Michigan’s the best there is.”
On paper, the Wolves are the strong favorites in this series; they finished 14 points ahead of Anchorage, and Wright has his team focused on the goal of being the first ever to win multiple Vandys. But there’s more to the story than a cursory glance at the standings might suggest. Anchorage and Michigan split their regular-season series, with each club winning 3 of 4 on its own ice.
“No one in this locker room is taking this matchup for granted,” said Wolves D “Mad Max” Madison. “We finished ahead of them, sure, but that doesn’t mean anything. They always play their best hockey when they’re playing us, and we do the same against. This series is going to be an all-out war, and it could swing either way.”
If there’s one thing that might swing the series in Anchorage’s favor, it’s their health. The Igloos will have all of their regular starters available for this series, while the Wolves suffered a major injury during the last week of the regular. On Thursday, C Hunter Bailes exited Michigan’s 5-4 win over Saskatchewan after taking a slash to his right arm. He was later diagnosed with an upper-body injury, and is expected to miss the entire first round of the playoffs. Bailes’ injury is a major blow to Michigan’s offense, as he led the team in goals with 35.
Wright says that he isn’t concerned about having to face the Igloos without Bailes. “Look, our team doesn’t rise or fall on a single guy, not Hunter or even The Bear,” the coach told reporters. “Our success is built on total team effort, with everyone contributing. Would I rather have him in there? Sure. But are we supposed to give up or run away crying because Bailes is hurt? That’s ridiculous. We’ve got everything we need to win this series, as long as we go out there and play like we know how.”