2021 SHL Finals – Game 6

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 4, HAMILTON PISTOLS 3 (OT)

(Anchorage wins series, 4-2)

“I didn’t think today was going to be our day,” said Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor.

The coach meant that in two senses.  Given what a tight, competitive series this SHL Finals has been, it seemed likely to go the distance.  And when the visiting Igloos blew a two-goal lead in the final six and a half minutes of regulation, it seemed virtually certain that the Hamilton Pistols would ride their momentum to a win and force a seventh game.

Fortunately for Anchorage, D Tony Citrone had other ideas.  After absorbing the body blow of a blown late lead, the visiting Igloos dominated the extra session until Citrone completed his hat trick on a booming slapshot from inside the left faceoff circle, giving his team a 4-3 win and clinching their third-ever Vandy, denying the Pistols their third consecutive title.

“As good as we’d played all game, I wasn’t going to let us lose,” said Citrone.

Through the first forty minutes, it looked as though Anchorage was on track for the victory.  After a scoreless first period, the Igloos broke through with goals on back-to-back shots before the midpoint of the second.  LW Veikko Sikanen got the Igloos on the board first at the eight-and-a-half minute mark with a shot that slipped between the pads of Hamilton goalie Lasse Koskinen.  Fifty seconds later, Citrone launched a knuckling shot from just inside the blue line that bounced under Koskinen’s blocker.

“It was a good scoreless game, then bam-bam, we’re down 2-0,” said Pistols D Hercules Mulligan.  “The game comes at you fast.”

Shortly after Citrone’s goal, Hamilton committed back-to-back penalties that left them killing off a 5-on-3 for almost a minute.  But although Anchorage got off five shot attempts during the extended power play, they were unable to get it past Koskinen.  LW Steven Alexander nearly got the Pistols on the board in the waning minutes of the period by collecting a rebound and firing it at a yawning net, but Igloos goalie Ty Worthington got across at the last possible moment and knocked it aside.

In the third period, facing the end of their season, the Pistols pulled out all the stops, firing 20 shots in a wide-open period.  Mulligan ended Worthington’s shutout bid in the first minute of the period by firing a wrister through traffic.  But when Citrone scored on the power play with just under 15 minutes remaining to make it 3-1, it seemed as though the game was almost out of reach.  The crowd at Gunpowder Armory kept cheering and trying to get their heroes back into it, but the minutes kept ticking away and the score stayed the same.

The Pistols got a break when Igloos D Laszlo Cierny was whistled for tripping with 8:12 remaining after he accidentally upended Pistols D Albie Glasco in the neutral zone while chasing a loose puck.  Anchorage nearly killed off the penalty, but LW Magnus Gunnarson potted it for the Pistols with 17 seconds left on the power play to pull within one again.

From that point until the end of regulation, Hamilton dominated the puck, outattempting the Igloos 14-2 over the final six and a half minutes.  The Pistols nearly scored the tying goal on a scrum in front of the Anchorage net with four and a half minutes left.  RW Waldo Miranda tried to jam it home; Worthington knocked it down but left a juicy rebound.  Alexander nearly buried the rebound, but Worthington threw up his glove at the last second to deflect it.  Alexander scooped it up again and fired it just wide.

Two minutes later, Alexander fired a slapshot from just below the faceoff dot that went in and came back so fast that he wasn’t certain it was a goal.  But when he spotted referee Darren St. James pointing vigorously at the net, Alexander threw his arms in the air and let out a scream.

“The momentum felt like it was all in our corner,” said Alexander.  “It was just a matter of time before we scored the game-winner, or so I thought.”

But when the siren sounded at the end of regulation, Hamilton’s momentum evaporated with it.  The Igloos gathered themselves during the intermission, and came out determined to end it.  They outshot Hamilton 6-1 in the extra session.  Cierny came up huge, blocking three consecutive Pistols shots.  Finally, 8:29 into overtime, Citrone scored and touched off the Igloos’ celebration.

C Jake Frost took the first lap around the ice with the Vandy.  As he thrust the trophy over his head, the center thought about the bumpy road he experienced this season: the multiple injuries that cost him a shot at the scoring title, the hard-fought division playoff against Milwaukee, and the drawn-out battle in the Finals.  He thought about his friends who weren’t there, veteran players who had been let go due to salary cap considerations: Ds Ted Keefe and Olaf Martinsson, C Nile Bernard, RW Remi Montrechere, and all the others.

“I’m grateful we made it back to the mountaintop,” said Frost.  “And everybody in this locker room deserves credit for that.  But so do Keefer, Nile, Remi, Olaf… all the guys who helped build the championship culture we have.  They’re not here to celebrate with us, but they deserve to be.”

Castor lauded the Igloos for rising to the occasion one more time.  “I know a lot of the so-called experts thought we were over the hill, that our window had closed,” said the Igloos coach.  “Fortunately, we’ve got a lot of great players here who were able to ignore that and just play our game.  We made it through a ton of adversity and beat the two-time defending champs.  I consider it a privilege to coach a strong, determined bunch of guys like this.  We’re the champions again!”

Continue reading “2021 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2021 SHL Finals – Game 5

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3, HAMILTON PISTOLS 1

(Anchorage leads series, 3-2)

Game 5 was an important contest for both the Anchorage Igloos and Hamilton Pistols, offering each team a chance to gain the upper hand in a tied series.  But while both teams badly wanted a victory here, it was like a must-win for the Igloos.  With Games 6 and 7 taking place at Hamilton’s Gunpowder Armory, Anchorage would need to pull off back-to-back road wins unless they could triumph here.

Fortunately for the Igloos, they sent the fans at Arctic Circle Arena home happy with a 3-1 win in which they never trailed and got the better end of the play throughout the contest.  The triumph moves Anchorage just one win away from their first Vandy since 2018.

“We knew this was an important game for us in order to take this series,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “Our team came out and played with the right sense of urgency and made sure we won.  They played a champion’s game today.”

Anchorage started the game as thought they’d been shot out of a cannon, taking the game’s first four shots and seven of the first nine shot attempts, all in the first two and a half minutes.  The Pistols withstood the early barrage, and nearly stole an early lead when RW Brad Stevens stole the puck from Igloos goalie Ty Worthington behind the net and nearly potted it on a wraparound.  But Worthington scrambled back just in time and made a stick save.

Both teams had an early power play in which they got off a couple shots but came up empty.  After several recent penalty-filled games, the Igloos and Pistols both seemed to tone down the physical edge to their games a bit.  “I thought we struck a good balance there,” said Pistols C Marco Venezio.  “Both teams played hard, but not vicious.  It didn’t feel like we were always just about to fight, like it did the last couple games.”

Anchorage took the lead with 4:46 remaining in the first, as LW Jerry Koons banked in a shot off the right post.  The Igloos closed out the period with another flurry of shot attempts, but couldn’t score.

The second period was a bit less offensively charged than the first.  The Igloos kept the puck in the offensive zone for most of the first four minutes, taking the first seven shot attempts of the period.  The Pistols pushed back after that, spending much of the middle portion of the period on offense, but struggled get any good looks on Worthington.

Just as the Igloos’ one-goal edge was starting to feel a bit fragile, Koons struck again with 2:48 left in the second period to double the home team’s lead.  It was the seventh goal of the series for Koons, who has been Anchorage’s top scorer by far.

“When Jerry gets hot, that’s when our offense really clicks,” said Frost, who has been happy for the winger to shoulder the team’s offensive load.  “Teams like to load up to stop me, but Koonsy keeps them honest.  He makes our top line really dangerous, and makes us a lot harder to stop as a team.”

Anchorage had a brief scare early in the third.  Pistols D Albie Glasco scored on a heavily screened shot 1:35 into the final frame to cut the deficit in half, and shortly thereafter Igloos D Brian Coldivar was penalized for interference.  But Anchorage completely shut down the Hamilton power play, repeatedly denying them zone entries and preventing them from getting even a single shot attempt off.  And less than a minute after the power play fizzled, D Rudolf Kerasov scored on a slapper to restore the Igloos’ two-goal lead.

“Once Rudi got that third goal for us,” said Koons, “we all breathed a little easier.  Kind of like, ‘Okay, we’ve got this one.’”

Anchorage’s defense smothered the life out of the Pistols down the stretch, as they outshot Hamilton 15-7 in the third period.  Castor credited the Igloos’ defensemen, especially Tony Citrone and Laszlo Cierny, for coming up with crucial blocks in the third to extinguish Hamilton’s hopes of a comeback.

“We’ve been winning the block battle in this series, and that’s been critical for us,” said the Anchorage coach.  “Our blueliners have really been throwing themselves on the grenade.  It makes Ty’s job a lot easier, and it’s led directly to some wins for us.”

The Igloos are clearly excited about being so close to another title, but they know what a tough task lies ahead.  “The Pistols are a great team, and we know they won’t make it easy on us,” said Frost.  “But we’re really motivated, and we believe we can win one.”

The defending champs are similarly confident without being cocky.  “We know we’ve got the talent to win this thing,” said LW Steven Alexander, who has been held pointless since Game 1 of the series.  “Having our own crowd behind us will be a huge boost.  We just have to go out there and take care of business.”

Continue reading “2021 SHL Finals – Game 5”

2021 SHL Finals – Game 4

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2, HAMILTON PISTOLS 1 (OT)

(Series tied, 2-2)

Hamilton Pistols coach Keith Shields is a happy soul, a devout Christian whose naturally upbeat personality shines in every press conference.  He rarely if ever flashes anger, on the bench or with the media.  But after his team lost Game 4 of the SHL Finals to the Anchorage Igloos in overtime on what he felt was an unreasonable penalty, he seemed… well, not quite angry, but not his usual jovial self.

“That’s a really tough way to lose,” said Shields of the penalty assessed to Pistols D Burt Hampton at the start of OT.  “This was such a great, evenly matched game.  A game like that, you hope the players can decide it.  For it to come down to a whistle, one that’s not part of live action… that’s not right.”

The Pistols players were freer with their anger than their coach.  “The refs decided this one,” said LW Steven Alexander in one of his few printable postgame remarks.

The whistle occurred as the players were lining up for the opening puck drop of the extra session.  Hampton, lined up against Igloos D Thor Dalmgaard, was jostling aggressively for position.  Both teams had been engaged in fierce tussles on faceoffs throughout the game, with Hampton one of the worst offenders.  Referee Dean Rodgers paused the puck drop twice and warned Hampton to ease up.  When the defenseman wrestled Dalmgaard to the ground on the third attempted drop, Rodgers had enough and sent Hampton off.

The ensuing power play lasted just seven seconds, as Igloos C Jake Frost received a pass from RW Nicklas Ericsson right in front of the net and fired a wrister past Hamilton goalie Lasse Koskinen to end it.

Even Igloos coach Sam Castor seemed surprised by the penalty.  “Normally in OT, the refs swallow their whistles, and you basically have to maim someone to get a call,” said Castor.  “But I absolutely thought it was the right call.  Hampton was mugging our guys on faceoffs all night, and it was about time he got called on it.”

The SHL did not make Rodgers or any of the other officials available for comment after the game.

The penalty flap brought an unfortunate end to what had been a tense and exciting game.  In many ways, it was the mirror image of Game 3.  This time, it was the Pistols who drove much of the play, outshooting Anchorage 44-31.  (They were especially dominant in the last two periods of regulations, winning the shot battle 32-17 over that stretch.)  But Igloos goalie Ty Worthington was fantastic, keeping the pucks out of the net.  He didn’t make as many dramatic-looking save as Koskinen did in yesterday’s contest, but he stood firm in the net and calmly swallowed up one Hamilton bid after another.

“That’s a perfect example of what a great goalie Ty is,” said Castor.  “He’s such a competitor that he’s always looking for opportunities to raise his game.  So when Koskinen stood on his head and stole a win for them yesterday, Ty looked at that and said, ‘Hey, I can do that too.’  And that’s what he did.”

Worthington was so strong in net that for much of the game, it looked like he would fashion a shutout, allowing LW Les Collins’ first-period power-play strike to stand up as the winning goal.  But the Pistols’ third-line, surprisingly, managed to get one past him in the middle of the third period.  During an extended offensive-zone shift, D Albie Glasco fed it to C Hilliard Macy just above the goal line.  Macy wasted no time firing the severe-angle shot, and the puck deflected off Worthington’s shoulder and in before he could seal the post.

“That was a heartbreaker, because I really wanted the shutout,” said Worthington.  “It was a great shot, but it was one I could have stopped.  I was just a hair slow getting over, and it cost me.”

The Igloos’ win ties the series and sets up a pivotal Game 5 tomorrow at Arctic Circle Arena.  Whatever the ultimate outcome, both sides agree that it’s been a thrilling series so far.

“It’s been a really evenly matched series so far, and either team could win it,” said Shields.  “The fans are really getting their money’s worth.  I really hope there won’t be any more controversial calls, because this Finals should be remembered for what happens on the ice.”

Continue reading “2021 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2020 SHL Finals – Game 5

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1

(Hamilton wins series, 4-1)

As the Hamilton Pistols prepared for a potential Finals-clinching Game 5, LW Steven Alexander stood in the middle of the visiting locker room and made a brief but powerful statement.

“This ends tonight,” said Alexander of the series.  “When we go back to Hamilton, I don’t want to play more hockey.  I want to be able to go party and celebrate with our friends.  Who’s with me?”

The other Pistols shouted their assent.  Then they went out and dominated the Anchorage Igloos, cruising to a 5-1 win and becoming the first team in SHL history to win back-to-back championships.

“Double Vandys, baby!” crowed Alexander after the game.  “We’ve started a revolution in the SHL.  The old empires are falling, and now it’s our time!”

The first period was competitive, as the Igloos – fighting for their playoff lives – came out fast.  They outshot Hamilton 16-7 in the opening stanza.  But thanks to Lasse Koskinen‘s strong goaltending and a couple of quality shots, the Pistols came away with a lead after 20 minutes.

The Igloos took the first six shots of the game, but couldn’t get any of them behind Koskinen.  When the Pistols finally got some offensive zone time about five minutes in, it didn’t take RW Claude Lafayette long to score the game’s first goal with a fierce snipe that snuck in between Igloos goalie Ty Worthington‘s left arm and torso.

That initial lead was short-lived; Igloos C Jens Bunyakin scored the equalizer just 30 seconds later.  But the Pistols didn’t let that slow them down.  Later in the period, Anchorage was setting up for another extended offensive shift when Pistols D Albie Glasco managed to poke-check the puck away from Igloos LW Jerry Koons and over the blue line.  That set up a Hamilton jailbreak, which ended with a gorgeous drop pass to C Calvin Frye, who stashed it in the upper left corner of the net to make it a 2-1 game.

“Even though [the Igloos] got most of the shots in the first, we still came out ahead,” said Frye.  “We felt confident at that point that we were going to take it.”

Over the final 40 minutes, the Pistols slowly squeezed the life out of both the Igloos offense and the fans at Arctic Circle Arena as they steadily added to their lead.  Anchorage had as many shots in the first as they did over the rest of the game.

“I have to hand it to them,” said Igloos C Jake Frost of his victorious opponent.  “They could have tried to trap and sit on their lead, but they didn’t.  They really took it to us.”

Hamilton added two more goals in the second period, one early in the period on a slapshot by D Clayton Risch, and another late in the period on a tip-in at the doorstep by C J.C. Marais.

Alexander, naturally, put the capper on things early in the third with a blast from his favorite spot at the edge of the left faceoff circle.  The feisty winger dropped his stick and thrust his arms in the air, then skated over to the waiting embrace of his teammates.  As the Pistols celebrated, their whoops and hollers echoed in the rafter of the painfully quiet arena.

After Alexander’s score, it was just a matter of letting the time wind off the clock.  As the minutes ticked away, several Igloos stars on the bench covered their heads with towels, either to hide their emotions or so they didn’t have to watch.  Others sat, staring blankly into the distance as their championship hopes withered away.

When the final horn sounded, though, the Igloos raised their sticks in the air in tribute to their fans.  And the crowd gave their fallen heroes a standing ovation.  They even saved some applause for the winning Pistols, who acknowledged the tribute before heading down to the locker room to celebrate.

The post-game scene was a boisterous, jubilant celebration.  The Pistols smoked cigars and poured champagne over themselves and each other.  Players swayed arm-in-arm, singing old drinking songs off key in between swigs of beer and whiskey.

“I can’t think of a group of guys I’d rather go to war with,” crowed Alexander.  “These are my friends, my teammates, my comrades in arms.  Next year, let’s go for a three-peat!”

Coach Keith Shields, tie askew and suit jacket missing, celebrated his players.  “In victory, the glory always goes to God,” said Shields, “but these boys worked so hard for this all season, and they deserve this celebration.  It’s been my honor and privilege to share it with them!”

In the home locker room, Igloos coach Sam Castor paid tribute to the champions.  “They just outplayed us,” Castor said.  “It’s not often that I have to say that, but it’s true.  It was a good, clean. well-played series, but they outplayed us. and they deserved the Vandy.  It’s a tough pill for us to swallow, but it gives us a little extra fuel for next season.”

Continue reading “2020 SHL Finals – Game 5”