There was a changing of the guard in the East this season. The two previous division champions, the Washington Galaxy and the Hershey Bliss, finished fourth and fifth this season, respectively. The teams that will be doing battle instead are both new to postseason play; in fact, neither of them had even finished with a winning record before. Not only that, the Quebec Tigres and Hamilton Pistols are the first non-American teams to make the playoffs.
“I’ll bet if you’d asked a thousand people before the season started, not one of them would have picked the two of us to get this far,” said Tigres LW Walt Camernitz.
Quebec and Hamilton both finished the season with 81 points (the Tigres will have home-ice advantage in this series because they recorded more wins). But in how they got there, and what strengths they bring to this matchup, the teams couldn’t be more different.
The Pistols thrived this season on a high-powered, fast-paced offense. For the first half of the season, they led the league in goals (they wound up with 210, which was good for third). They had two of the league’s top five goal scorers (LW Steven Alexander with 56 and C Calvin Frye with 40), while RW Claude Lafayette tied for the lead in assists with 73. “We’re a team that thrives on speed, obviously,” said coach Keith Shields. “I tell my guys, just put the puck on net and good things will happen.”
The Tigres, meanwhile, are happiest when they’re able to slow the game down and frustrate their opponents’ rhythm and momentum. Coach Martin Delorme coached the Michigan Gray Wolves before returning to his home province, and he modeled his Quebec squad in the Wolves’ image. “Our ideal game is a 1-0 victory,” said Delorme. “If you can deny the opponent shots, you deny them the chance for goals. And if you can deny entry to the zone, you deny the chance for shots.”
Quebec’s defense held opponents to just under 27 shots per game, second only to the Wolves. The Tigres’ defense isn’t studded with big names (their top blueliner is arguably rookie Laurie Workman), but they bring a dogged determination and an all-for-one-and-one-for-all work ethic to every game.
One thing both teams have in common is a Finnish-born rising star between the pipes. The Tigres are relying on 23-year-old Riki Tiktuunen, the stalwart who has established himself among the league’s elite in his third season in the SHL. His .930 save percentage is second only to Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist, while his 2.03 GAA is the fourth-best mark in the league. “The best think about Riki is that he doesn’t get rattled,” said Camernitz. “We could be up by 10 or down by 10, and you couldn’t tell the difference by looking at him. I don’t know if he’s a Zen guy or what, but he’s so calm it’s almost scary.”
The Pistols, meanwhile, have 21-year-old Lasse Koskinen. Last season, Koskinen nearly won Rookie of the Year honors after a highly impressive debut campaign. This year, he took his game up to the next level, going 28-20-4 with a 2.46 GAA and a .921 save percentage. “I honestly think Koski’s going to be the best goalie in the league someday,” said Shields. Unlike Tiktuunen, Koskinen is much more demonstrative with his emotion, freely showing his joy after big wins and his frustration after tough losses. “We like having a goalie who’s a human being, not a robot,” said Alexander.
If momentum is a factor in this series, the advantage goes to Quebec. Hamilton went 3-10-0 over their last 13 games of the season, while Quebec won three games in the last week of the season alone, including a 3-0 win over the Pistols on the last day of the regular season to claim the division title. Shields doesn’t think that his team’s recent slump will be a factor, however. “That’s the beautiful thing about the playoffs; the slate gets wiped clean,” the Pistols coach said. “All that matters is the next five games.”