As mentioned in this space last week, the Anchorage Igloos’ revival from a dismal start has attracted attention around the league and marked the squad from the far north as a top Vandy contender. The Igloos’ win streak reached ten games before they fell to Hershey on Saturday.
While Anchorage’s run has been the #1 topic of discussion in SHL locker rooms, another Western team has quietly reeled off some wins of their own, and currently sit in front of the Igloos and everyone else atop the West: the Portland Bluebacks.
Last season, playing as the Seattle Sailors, the team made its first trip to the postseason, only to be quickly swept by the Igloos. Since the team had never even finished above .500 before, some regression to the mean seemed possible. It was also unclear how the move to the Rose City would affect the team.
But GM Taylor Teichman made several bold moves in the offseason to prepare the Bluebacks for another season of contention. They came out of nowhere to win the bidding war for C Eddie Costello, strengthening a position where they were already solid. And even though goalie Rocky Goldmire was coming off a career-best performance, Teichman dealt him to Kansas City and signed veteran Jesse Clarkson.
The moves have made the Bluebacks a more balanced and dangerous club. In previous years, the team’s fortunes have rested on the stick of their telegenic and controversial star, RW Vince Mango. This year, however, Mango doesn’t lead the team in points; Costello does, with 24. (Mango’s 9 goals aren’t even the most on the team; LW Rod “Money” Argent has 10.)
“I’m not in the position where I have to be the hero all the time, and that’s great,” said Mango to reporters this week. “We’ve got lots of ways to beat you now.”
On the opposite end, Clarkson has rebounded from a slow start to post his usual strong numbers: 10-3-2, 2.76 GAA, .916 save percentage. The veteran netminder is rarely considered among the SHL’s elite, but he has been consistent year in and year out. Not only is Clarkson playing in front of perhaps the best team of his career, but he’s also playing close to home for the first time; he’s a native of Castle Rock, Washington, about an hour north of Portland on I-5.
“It’s great being able to play in front of my family and friends,” said Clarkson. “The only trouble is, the team is so popular I can hardly get tickets!”
Clarkson’s not kidding: the games at Willamette River Arena have all been sellouts so far. The energy of the crowds has clearly fueled the team; they have a sterling 9-2-1 record on home ice. “The energy in this building is the best in the league,” said Mango. “When it’s the third period and behind by one and we’re going on the power play, the crowd feels like it’s right on top of you. It’s intimidating as hell, and it’s a great weapon for us.”
As brilliant as the Bluebacks have been so far, nothing is decided yet. Anchorage remains a threat, and the Saskatchewan Shockers loom not far behind them both. But for those who thought that last year’s success was a flash in the pan, the message is clear: think again.
“It’s been a long road to get this far, long and bumpy,” said coach Harold Engellund. “But we’re for real now, and the rest of the league had better get used to it. We’re not going anywhere.”