Tigres Looking Up After Finals Loss

The SHL Finals were a wild ride for the Quebec Tigres.  They dropped the first three games, including wo at home, and appeared to be on their way to a sweep at the hands of the Anchorage Igloos’ postseason bulldozer.  Then they won the next three games, a dramatic momentum swing that had the fans at Centre Citadelle dreaming of a title.  Then, in a back-and-forth Game 7, Quebec came up just short.

In the locker room after the final game, the Tigres’ mood was slightly disappointed, but still positive.  After all, this trip to the Finals – on the heels of their first-ever season with an above-.500 record – marks them as a team on the rise in an Eastern Division that seems up for grabs.

“We didn’t get the ultimate prize,” said LW Walt Camernitz, “but we proved that we belong.  We proved that we can play at the highest level.  That gives us a ton of confidence heading into next season.”

Although Quebec had home-ice advantage in the Finals, having finished with one more point than Anchorage in the regular season, the Tigres were widely considered the underdogs.  The Igloos were making their third trip to the Finals in the last four seasons, and they’d just finished sweeping the mighty Michigan Gray Wolves in the Western playoff.

“Everyone was sure that we didn’t stand a chance against a talented veteran club like [the Igloos],” said D Ward Jones.  “They thought we were fun and scrappy, but basically a fluke.  We showed them that we weren’t.”

Martin Delorme

The outcome of the season was a vindication for Tigres coach Martin Delorme, who walked away from a strong Michigan squad to become the first coach of his home-province team.  The Wolves went on to win the Vandy without him the following season, while Quebec languished in the basement.  As recently as last season, when Delorme was feuding with his star player and attracting unwelcome attention for his personal foibles, it seemed as though the coach might have made a fatal mistake.

Now, though, Delorme is being hailed as a local hero.  “When I was a boy, I dreamed of starring for the Canadiens, to be the next Guy Lafleur,” said Delorme.  “Too bad I was not that good.  But now I am living my dream in a different way.”

Delorme lauded his club for a valiant effort, and believes this run could be the building block for future greatness.  “This series was the greatest test we have ever faced, and we showed our courage and strength,” said Delorme.  “I do not expect this to be a one-year thing.  We can learn our lessons from this experience and become even stronger.”

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Bellmore Chosen as Finals MVP

Harvey Bellmore

In a move that few would have predicted before the series began, the SHL selected Anchorage Igloos C Harvey Bellmore as its 2018 Finals MVP.  Bellmore was acquired by the Igloos at the trading deadline, but he spent most of his time on the third line, where he contributed quietly.  But in a series that was defined by defense and balanced offensive contributions, Bellmore and the third line – nicknamed “The Circus Squad” for their off-kilter personality – came through when Anchorage needed them most.

“If you’d tried to tell me before this series started that Harvey Bellmore was going to be MVP,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor, “I probably would have had you locked up in an asylum, just to be safe.  But here we are!”

Bellmore finished the series with 5 points (3 goals and 2 assists), which tied him for the second-highest total on the team, behind only D Ted Keefe.  But it was in Game 7 where Bellmore really made his contribution to the series.  Twice in the second period, Bellmore scored goals that erased Quebec leads.  Then in the third period, he assisted Broni Zhlotkin on what proved to be the game-winning goal.

“We’ve always been a team that thrives on depth,” said C Jake Frost.  “We trust everybody, down to the last man.  Even when that’s Harvey.”

Along with the MVP award, Bellmore received a year’s supply of canned salmon and a Kia Stinger sports sedan.  “I love to drive fast, so I’m really excited about this car,” said the Igloos center.  “And salmon salad is supposed to be good for you, so yay!”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 7

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 4, QUEBEC TIGRES 3

There were several points this season when it appeared that the Anchorage Igloos would fail in their quest for their second Vandy.  The team hovered around the .500 mark for much of the season.  Coach Sam Castor called his club out for a lack of effort at one point.  Even as late as the trading deadline, it wasn’t clear whether the Igloos would be able to hold on to a playoff spot.

Anchorage finished the season strong, however, and seemed prepared to rampage through the postseason.  They swept the Michigan Gray Wolves in the division playoff, then won three straight in the Finals to push the Quebec Tigres to the brink.  But in one final, cruel twist of fate, they proceeded to lose three straight to Quebec to even the series, leaving it up to a winner-take-all Game 7 at Centre Citadelle.

“I suppose we could have made it harder on ourselves,” said C Jake Frost, “but I’m not sure how.”

Fortunately, Anchorage was up to the challenge.  In a game for the ages, the Igloos rallied from behind twice with the help of some unlikely faces and squeezed out a 4-3 victory, becoming the first two-time SHL champion.

“We really went through hell to get here,” said Castor, “but that makes the victory so much sweeter.”

After being manhandled by the Tigres in Game 6, the Igloos needed to get their offense back on track in this contest.  They got off to a decent start in the first period, outshooting Quebec 11-8, but they couldn’t get one past goalie Riki Tiktuunen.  Worse yet, Castor sensed that some of his stars – particularly Frost and RW Nicklas Ericsson – were pressing a bit.

“We were definitely playing tight out there early,” said the Anchorage coach.  “I knew we needed to do something to shake things up.”

To top it all off, D Tony Citrone was penalized in the first couple minutes of the game for a slashing call that the Igloos considered highly questionable.  On the ensuing power play, Tigres RW Stephane Mirac deflected a knuckling puck just inside the post to give the home team a 1-0 lead that stood up through period’s end.

Heading into the second, Castor decided to take a gamble.  The Igloos coach decided to give more ice time to their bottom line of LW Waldo Miranda, C Harvey Bellmore, and RW Broni Zhlotkin.  That group earned themselves the nickname “The Circus Squad” both because of their penchant for practical jokes and their tendency to make on-ice mistakes.  Castor tends to limit their shifts for that reason, but he gambled that their goofy nature might be an advantage in a high-pressure game like this.

“I figured they were too dumb to get scared,” said the Igloos coach.

Castor’s hunch paid off in a big way.  Two and a half minutes into the second period, during an extended offensive shift, Bellmore drifted close to the net and redirected a shot from D Olaf Martinsson over Tiktuunen’s right pad to tie the score at 1.

The deadlock lasted less than a minute, however, as D Laurie Workman fired a slapshot that beat a screened Ty Worthington to put Quebec back in front.

Castor’s solution?  Put the Circus Squad right back out there.  And just 16 seconds after Workman’s tally, Bellmore went top-shelf on Tiktuunen to tie the score back up.  To celebrate his offensive explosion, Bellmore beat his chest and let out a Tarzan scream.

“Sometimes, you just need to send the nutcases out there,” said Castor.

Later on in the period, LW Jerry Koons got the top line on the board, finishing a breakaway by beating Tiktuunen on the glove side and giving the Igloos their first lead of the game.

“We couldn’t let the bottom line do all the work,” quipped Koons.

The Igloos weren’t quite out of the woods yet.  A minute and a half into the third period, Mirac fired a laser past Worthington for his second goal of the game, tying the score.  Once again, the Circus Squad came to the rescue.  Bellmore, trying for a hat trick, fired a shot that wound up in a scrum in front of the net.  The puck wound up bouncing to Miranda, who fed it over to Zhltokin.  The rugged winger wrestled free of his defender and slapped it home to put the Igloos ahead for good.

“If anyone predicted that Broni Zhlotkin was going to get the goal that won the Finals, I want to meet that guy,” said Castor.  “He and I are going down to the racetrack.”

Anchorage still had to weather a couple of late Quebec rushes, but Worthington was on duty and kept the Tigres from tying the score.  With about two minutes left in the game, Mirac skated behind the net and tried a wraparound shot, but Worthington got over in the nick of time and deflected it with his skate blade.

The postgame handshake line was far from the usual perfunctory routine.  Players on both side squeezed each other’s arms, thumped chests, and even hugged.  It was a gesture of mutual respect between a pair of worthy adversaries who expect to see each other again in a situation like this.

“Quebec gave us everything we could handle,” said Castor.  “Stephane and his team deserve a ton of credit.  We got the Vandy this time, but I’m sure they’ve got one ahead of them.”

For his part, Tigres coach Martin Delorme kept his focus on the future.  “We learned a lot of lessons here that will serve us well,” Delorme told reporters.  “We faced a great team and nearly beat them.  I cannot wait for next season.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 7”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 6

QUEBEC TIGRES 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 0

In the wake of today’s Game 6, the Anchorage Igloos‘ locker room was completely silent.  After being thoroughly outplayed by the Quebec Tigres and defeated 3-0, after seeing their 3-0 series lead slip away entirely, after seeing the momentum of these Finals shift away from them, the Igloos stared at the floor and tried to process what had happened.  The team that was expecting to be hoisting its second Vandy by now, and the outcome of this game left them reeling.

“What we showed out there tonight isn’t us,” said C Jake Frost.  “If we can’t put out a better effort than that, we should just go give [the Tigres] the trophy right now.”

“We have no one to blame but ourselves for letting it get this far,” said coach Sam Castor.

From the drop of the puck, Anchorage looked confused and ill at ease.  The orange-clad crowd at Centre Citadelle generated a tremendous roar, and it clearly fueled the hometown Tigres.  Quebec completely dominated the first period, outshooting the Igloos 15-5.  “It felt like we were just stuck in quicksand out there,” said LW Jerry Koons.

Given how thoroughly Quebec controlled play in the period, it’s a bit remarkable that they ended the period with only a one-goal lead.  RW Sindri Pentti, who started the game on a hunch by coach Martin Delorme, put the puck in the next only 13 seconds in.  But Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington made a number of acrobatic saves to keep the game from getting out of hand.

Unfortunately, Worthington couldn’t hold the fort forever.  Less than two minutes into the second period, Quebec D Dmitri Kalashnikov blasted a shot from the blue line that bounced off the crossbar.  The Igloos goalie couldn’t corral the rebound, and RW Flint Robinson stuffed it home for a 2-0 lead.

“Steel is great at parking himself in front of the net and cleaning up the garbage,” said Tigres D Ward Jones.  “That’s the kind of rugged, hard-working game that we play.”

Although Quebec didn’t dominate play to quite the same extent in the second, they did manage to control the pace of the game with their suffocating defense.  Once again, they held Anchorage to a mere five shots in the period.

“Ten shots is a slow period for us typically,” said Frost.  “To get only ten shots in two periods?  That’s unheard of for us.  They just completely bottled us up.”

Continuing their pattern of early-period strikes, Tigres C Phil Miller beat Worthington high on the glove side with two minutes gone in the third to give the home team a three-goal lead and send the home crowd into orbit.  “I thought they maybe would cheer enough for the roof to fall down,” said C Drustan Zarkovich.

The desperate Igloos were finally able to generate some offensive momentum in the third; they ripped off 11 shots in the period.  But Quebec goalie Riki Tiktuunen stood firm in the crease, calmly turning aside every blast; when all was said and done, he had stopped 21 shots to complete his second shutout of the series.  Even when Tigres D Laurie Workman committed a pair of late penalties to give unwitting aid to the visitors, the Igloos were unable to convert.

“We didn’t really find our game until the third, and by then it was too late,” said Koons.

Now, if the Igloos are going to claim the Vandy they’d assumed was theirs, they will need to erase the memory of the Tigres’ three-goal third period in Game 5 to secure a come-from-behind win, and they’ll need to forget the way they were manhandled in this game.  “We need to remember that we’re the better team, and we need to play like it,” said Frost.

For their part, the Tigres say they aren’t going to take a Game 7 victory for granted, either.  “Momentum disappears the minute the puck is dropped,” said Delorme.  “Tomorrow is a one-game series, and we must treat it that way.  What came before is only the prologue to the story.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 5

QUEBEC TIGRES 4, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

When the Anchorage Igloos won the first three games of this championship series, the pundits were all but ready to hand them the Vandy.  Maybe the Quebec Tigres would win one to avoid the embarrassment of a sweep, but that was all.  Surely, Quebec couldn’t win back-to-back games in the hostile confines of Arctic Circle Arena, much less the four straight they’d need to win the series.

But after today’s 4-2 win in Game 5, the Tigres now have the back-to-back road wins they needed.  And after they scored three goals in the third period to secure a come-from-behind win, the momentum is firmly in Quebec’s corner.  Mind you, they haven’t won yet.  They still need to win two more.  But after a game that seemed virtually tailor-made to sow doubt in the minds of the Igloos, a miracle comeback no longer seems like an impossibility.

“Seems like Anchorage might have been taking this win for granted,” said LW Stellan Fisker.  “But we never gave up on ourselves, and we aren’t going to.”

As for the Igloos, there was a definite undercurrent of unease in the locker room after the game.  “We definitely felt like this was one we could have had,” said C Jake Frost.

Similar to Game 4, the first couple of periods were a little on the slow side, as the Tigres used their defense to set the pace.  And just like Game 4, the visitors got on the board first, with RW Stephane Mirac getting on the board just 20 seconds in on a shot that banked in off the left post.  Unlike in Game 4, Anchorage struck back and re-took the lead.  RW Ben Summers tied it up on a power-play goal eight minutes in, and C Harvey Bellmore put the Igloos ahead with a redirect that found the upper left corner of the net with six minutes left in the period.

As the teams headed to the locker room after the first intermission with the Igloos up 2-1, the crowd seemed cheerful and confident of victory.  Forty more minutes, and their heroes would be circling the ice showing off their latest trophy.  Perhaps the boys in blue allowed themselves to entertain the same fantasies.

After a scoreless second period, the Igloos found themselves a mere 20 minutes away from the title.  The crowd’s cheering became more intense, and the fans began serenading some of the players by name.  “We might have gotten ahead of ourselves a bit,” admitted Frost.

Neither the Igloos nor their fans were ready for what happened in the third period, but it’s likely to be seared in their minds for a long time to come.  49 seconds into the period, Fisker fired a low line drive that deflected off of Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s stick, bounced off his arm, and went into the net.  “That was a soft one,” admitted Worthington.  “I should have stopped it.”

After that, Tigres LW Walt Camernitz stole the show.  Quebec made a splash in the offseason by signing the ex-Washington winger to a five-year, $20 million deal.  Camernitz proved to be a worthwhile investment, jump-starting their moribund offense and turning the Tigres from a promising young club into a contender.  It was only fitting that he would provide the winning goals in the biggest game of their season so far.

At 7:15 into the third, during the tail end of a power play, Camernitz fired a severe-angle shot that somehow eluded Worthington and found the twice, giving Quebec its first lead of the period.  Just over three minutes later, C Mikhail Ilyushin fed him a pass in the left faceoff circle, and he thundered a slapper that Worthington never seemed to see to make it a 4-2 game.

“Walt is worth every penny we paid him,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “He has brought us scoring, defense, and leadership all in one package.”

The Tigres weren’t quite out of the woods yet.  They had to kill off an extended 5-on-3 situation in the latter half of the third; Frost nearly scored on the two-man advantage, but his shot rang off the post.  But that was as close as the Igloos would come to scoring.  By the time the final siren sounded, the crowd sat stunned and virtually silent, denied the celebration they were sure was coming.

Anchorage coach Sam Castor cautioned against panic.  “We still just have to win one of these in order to get the title,” the coach said.  “But we’ll need to play a sharper, more disciplined game than we saw out there tonight.  We’re close, but we haven’t won anything yet.  We need to remember that.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 5”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 4

QUEBEC TIGRES 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 0

In a lot of ways, it was a victory for the Quebec Tigres to make it to their first-ever SHL Finals.  For a team that had never even finished above .500 before, having a shot at the Vandy was a remarkable achievement.  However, it look as though their trip to the Finals would be a short one after the Anchorage Igloos won the first three games of the series, including two in Quebec’s building.

Facing a must-win game on enemy ice, the Tigres needed someone to step up and be a hero.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen answered the call in Game 4, turning aside all 39 shots and helping Quebec stave off elimination with a 3-0 win.

“We are up off of the mat,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “And Riki is the one who lifted us up.”

“Riki was the star today,” agreed LW Walt Camernitz, who scored Quebec’s first goal.  “We all played a part, but he was the man today.”

The famously reticent Tiktuunen declined to claim credit for the win, insisting that it was a team effort.  “Everything that we do, win or lose, we do as a team,” the goalie said.  “I cannot win a game on my own.  We had a great defense, and we got excellent goals too.  I was just helping out.”

Through the first couple of periods, Tiktuunen had a point, as Quebec’s defense was in fine form, slowing down and frustrating Anchorage at virtually every turn.  Camernitz jammed home a rebound four minutes into the game, and the Tigres’ defense and Tiktuunen combined to make it stand up.  Through the first two stanzas, Quebec held the Igloos to 20 shots, almost none of them in high-danger areas.

“We were definitely playing our game, moving at a deliberate pace, keeping the crowd out of it,” said Camernitz.

When the score remained 1-0 at the second intermission, it brought back memories of Game 2.  In that contest, Anchorage came from behind and forced an overtime session, which they won.  The Igloos were clearly hoping for another third-period rally, and they managed to slip out of Quebec’s trap and rev up the pace dramatically in the final 20 minutes.  In that period, Tiktuunen really sparkled, making save after save and thwarting the Igloos’ sweep dreams.

In the opening minute of the period, C Jake Frost got loose on a breakaway and fired a laser beam of a shot at the top of the net, but Tiktuunen made a fabulous glove save to shut it down.  Later, on an odd man rush, RW Nicklas Ericsson tried to beat Tiktuunen on the stick-side; the Quebec netminder made a sprawling save, then sprung back up and turned aside a rebound attempt by Frost.  All in all, the Igloos fired 19 shots in the third period alone, and Tiktuunen stopped each one.

“He was practically turning backflips in the crease,” said RW Flint Robinson of his goalie.

With Tiktuunen taking care of business on the defensive end, Quebec was able to take advantage of the faster pace and put the game away.  RW Sindri Pentti, who has been largely invisible in this series, bulled his way in front of the net and deflected a shot from D Doug Wesson over Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington to take a two-goal lead early in the period.  Four and a half minutes later, a neutral-zone turnover by Igloos D Willy Calligan sprung a rare Tigres jailbreak; LW Stellan Fisker finished by slipping the puck between Worthington’s pads to make it 3-0.

Delorme was pleased at the way his team stared down defeat and didn’t blink.  “We showed a lot of heart and courage today, from Riki on down,” the coach said.  “We still have a lengthy road to travel, but this is a strong first step.”

The Igloos, meanwhile, remain confident that they will be able to close out the series quickly.  “I mean, a sweep would have been nice, but we weren’t expecting it,” said Frost.  “We’ve got another one at home, and we can go ahead and wrap this up and embrace the Vandy.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 3

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3, QUEBEC TIGRES 1

After taking the first two games of these Finals on the road, the Anchorage Igloos came home to Arctic Circle Arena with a chance to take a stranglehold on the series.  They did just that, completely muzzling the Quebec Tigres and rolling to a 3-1 victory that puts them one win away from a clean sweep of the playoffs.

“This is a group that’s hungry for the title,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons, who had a goal and an assist in today’s game.  “We’re all driven with one singular purpose: winning the Vandy.”

During the division playoff, the Igloos used frantic, fast-paced first periods to get early leads and set the tones.  The Tigres managed to frustrate those attempts in the first two games, but Anchorage successfully turned up the heat in this game, outshooting Quebec 15-7 in the opening frame.

The Tigres were set back on their heels early thanks to a couple of quick penalties.  They succeeded in killing both of them off, but Anchorage held the puck in the zone after the second penalty ended, pinning Quebec in its own end.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen tried to fall on the puck to give his players a much-needed breather, but was unable to secure it.  The puck wound up on the stick of Koons, who drilled it home over the prone Tiktuunen to draw first blood.

A couple minutes later, the Igloos’ Les Collins and Ben Summers broke out on an odd-man rush.  After a couple back-and-forth passes, Collins fired a shot that tucked under the crossbar to make it 2-0.

“That was important for us, to get a fast start and get the crowd pumped up,” said Summers.

The Igloos managed to kill off a 5-on-3 situation later in the period and went to the locker room with their two-goal edge intact.  Less than a minute into the second, however, Broni Zhlotkin was whistled for diving, and Quebec needed only 10 second of power-play time for Rupert MacDiarmid to convert, cutting the deficit in half.

“This postseason has been a real showcase for Rupert,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “He has been a highlight for us.”

But Anchorage managed to virtually extinguish the Tigres’ offense after that.  Quebec would only record three more shots in the remainder of the period.  The Igloos didn’t accomplish this through trapping and slowing the pace of the game; rather, they maintained possession of the puck and skated past the Tigres.

When Tigres RW Sindri Pentti went off for tripping just before the halfway mark of the period, Igloos RW Nicklas Ericsson ripped a shot between Tiktuunen’s legs to restore Anchorage’s two-goal edge.  For the rest of the second period and all of the third, the Igloos maintained control of the game for long stretches, and the Tigres struggled to gain possession of the puck, much less to get shots off.  Quebec registered only four shots in the third period; for the game, they were outshot 37-15.

“Our guys just put on a clinic out there on playing with a lead,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We just controlled play and dominated the ice, and just slowly sucked the life out of them.”

As for the Tigres, they’ll need to win on enemy ice in Game 4 to avoid being swept, and they’ll need to win four in a row – including the next two in Anchorage – in order to win the series.  “We have dug ourselves into a very deep hole,” said Delorme.  “We have only one choice now if we’re going to win this.  It will not be easy, but it is the task we have left for ourselves.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 3”