For as long as there has been an SHL, the West has been a battle between two teams: the Anchorage Igloos and the Michigan Gray Wolves. The teams have traded division titles since the beginning; last year, when the playoffs expanded to four teams, the Wolves won the regular-season title, only to be swept in the playoffs by the Igloos, who went on to win their second Vandy.
This year, for the first time, the Western playoffs include a representative that’s not one of those two teams. The defending champion Igloos, by virtue of their usual second-half surge, made it to the postseason again, but the Wolves fell apart down the stretch and finished fourth. Instead, the Seattle Sailors – a team that had never finished higher than fourth before – will be facing the Igloos in the Western playoff.
“I think it’s a breath of fresh air for the league,” said Sailors RW Vince Mango. “The old Michigan-Anchorage storyline had gotten a little stale. We’re here to shake things up.”
As Mango noted, the Sailors bring some fresh faces to the postseason (D Hans Mortensen is the only member of their roster with SHL playoff experience) and a dramatically different approach from the hard-hitting, slow-paced Wolves. Seattle has always depended on its fast-paced, high-flying offense, led by the colorful and controversial Mango (whose 45 goals were good for fifth in the league). The Sailors scored 227 goals in the regular season, the second-highest total in the league.
In past seasons, the Sailors’ high-octane offense had been let down by an indifferent defense and mediocre goaltending. This season, though, coach Harold Engellund has improved the team’s commitment in its own end, and it’s paid dividends. In addition, Seattle got a career year out of netminder Rocky Goldmire (24-14-1, 2.90 GAA, .915 save percentage). It adds up to a defense that’s not outstanding, but is good enough to support their scoring attack.
“This season’s been like Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” said Engellund. “For once, we’re not too hot or too cold; we’re just right.”
In the other corner, Anchorage brings the experience of three previous playoff trips, as well as a roster that’s dripping with talent. The team that’s scored more goals than Seattle this year? The Igloos, with 233. They have a league-leading nine players who reached double figures in goals, starting with C Jake Frost with 49.
Unlike Seattle, though, the Igloos don’t rely solely on their offense. Their 2.49 GAA placed them third in the league, and Ty Worthington (29-15-4, 2.45, .920) remains one of the league’s elite goalies. Anchorage is brilliant on special teams, too; their 19.3% power-play percentage is third in the league, while their 88.4% penalty kill percentage was second only to Michigan.
“This may be the best team we’ve ever had,” said LW Jerry Koons. “Which is kind of scary to say, but it’s true. We’ve been in the spotlight before, and we’re not going to let it shake us.
Each team is down a defender. Seattle’s Woody Fairwood (12 goals, 30 assists, +26 in the regular season) is expected to return at some point during the series; Anchorage’s Sebastian Pomfret (10 goals, 22 assists, +13) is not.
Both teams are also facing the end of an era. The Sailors are leaving Seattle and moving to Portland after this season; the players have dedicated this season’s run to their fans in the Emerald City. The Igloos aren’t going anywhere, but salary cap constraints mean that several key contributors likely won’t be able to return next season. “If we’re going to have to break up this team,” Frost said, “I’d really like for us to go out on a high note.”
So what will prove decisive in this matchup? Will it be Anchorage’s skill and experience, or Seattle’s confidence and enthusiasm? Will the Sailors win one for the fans they’re leaving behind, or will the Igloos produce one last run for their veteran roster? On paper, Anchorage is the favorite. On the ice, though, anything can happen.
“I know we’re the underdog here, because they’re the champs and they’ve been good for a lot of years,” said Sailors LW Rod Argent. “But we’ve been proving the haters wrong all season, and we’re definitely ready to do it again.”