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.”