(Hamilton leads, 3-1)
The first three games of the 2019 SHL Finals have been tense, back-and-forth affairs, with neither team leading by more than one goal at any point. Coming into today’s pivotal Game 4, both the hometown Hamilton Pistols and the defending champion Anchorage Igloos were looking for a decisive victory, one that might swing the momentum of the series firmly in their favor.
As it turned out, it was the Pistols who made the strong statement, running out to a 3-0 lead in the first half of the contest. They then withstood a late Anchorage rally to hold on for a 3-2 win, moving themselves within a game of their first-ever Vandy.
“We’re rising up, boys!” hollered Pistols LW Steven Alexander in a jubilant postgame locker room. “One more win, and the world turns upside down!”
Up to this point, the first periods in this series have followed a pattern: a lot of sound and fury, but no goals. Before today’s game, Hamilton coach Keith Shields suggested to his team to slow down the pace a bit and focus on shot quality over quantity. He also tinkered with the team’s offensive setup. Noting that the Igloos were focusing their defense on Alexander, Shields decided to roll his lines and run less of the offense through his star winger. The changes paid great dividends.
Just over two minutes in the game, with the third line on the ice, LW Magnus Gunnarson received a perfect pass from C Henry Constantine in the slot, and went top-shelf for a goal. It’s the first time in the series that Hamilton has scored first, and it got the crowd at Gunpowder Armory fired up early.
“We’ve been getting traffic in the home plate area, and it’s been paying off for us,” said Gunnarson.
Shortly after the midway point of the first, the Pistols’ top line set up for an extended shift in Anchorage’s end. C Calvin Frye found Alexander in his preferred shooting spot. Alexander wound up for a slapshot, and Igloos goalie Ty Worthington committed to block it. But Alexander instead fired a pass to teammate Claude Lafayette, who was skating hard toward the net. Lafayette easily tucked the puck home over a sprawling Worthington to give Hamilton a 2-0 lead.
The Igloos had opportunities to cut into the lead late in the period thanks to a flurry of Pistols penalties, but they couldn’t convert, and went into the locker room down by a pair. Coach Sam Castor laid into the champs, demanding to see more urgency.
“We let [the Pistols] get the jump on us, and we weren’t responding,” said Castor. “That’s not like us.”
The Igloos came out with more energy in the second half, but they frequently ran into a brick wall at the blue line, courtesy of the Pistols’ rugged defensive corps. “They did a really good job keeping us from getting established on offense,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons. “We just couldn’t get any momentum.”
A little more than 5 minutes into the period, the Pistols’ top line broke out on an odd-man rush. Frye fed it to Alexander, who again wound up for a shot. Worthington prepared to block it, only to see Alexander toss it back to D Raymond Smyth, who beat Worthington glove-side to make it a 3-0 game. As Smyth circled back for hugs and backslaps from his teammates, the crowd threatened to tear the roof off with their jubilation.
The Igloos refused to give in, however, and slowly fought back with the help of some ill-timed Pistol penalties. About four minutes after Smyth’s goal, RW Kenny Patterson was assessed with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for smacking the puck into the stands to protest an offside call. With about 20 seconds left on the power play, Igloos RW Ben Summers got free in front of the net and jammed the puck just inside the post to get his team on the board.
In the third period, Frye took another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Anchorage kept the puck in the offensive zone, and cashed in during the waning seconds of the power play with a goal from D Ted Keefe. The Igloos celebrated as an uneasy buzz ran through the stands.
With just over three minutes left in regulation, Anchorage had a golden chance to tie the game when Pistols D Clayton Risch was whistled for spearing. “We knew we really had to buckle down and stop them at all costs,” said D Hercules Mulligan. “We could not let a stray shot give us away.”
So Anchorage took their shots, and Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen and the penalty kill turned them away. And then, 1:17 into the power play, Igloos D Olaf Martinsson committed a cross-checking penalty, wiping away the man advantage and the visitors’ hopes for victory.
In the losing locker room, the Igloos were grim but determined. “Well, we used up all of our rope,” C Jake Frost said. “Now the only thing we can do is go win three in a row. So that’s what we’re going to do.”