(Hamilton leads series, 2-1)
Lasse Koskinen told us this was coming. In Game 2, the Hamilton Pistols goalie returned from an injury he suffered during the divisional playoff against Boston but struggled badly after the first period, surrendering five goals.
After the game, reporters asked him if he was still dealing with lingering effects from the injury. Koskinen denied it, saying that he’d just had a bad game. “If I play better next game, perhaps then you will believe it,” he said.
In tonight’s Game 3, the Finnish-born netminder played one of the best games of his career. He showed no signs of injury, moving comfortably all around the crease and making 39 saves, including several acrobatic stops. Thanks to Koskinen’s brilliance in net, the Pistols stole a game on the road, 2-1, against an Anchorage Igloos team that clearly outplayed them for most of the contest.
“Seeing the game happen live, I couldn’t understand how we lost,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor. “Then I looked at the stat sheet, and I still couldn’t understand it. But when you’ve got a hot goalie, anything is possible. And Koskinen was on fire tonight. I have to tip my hat to him.”
Anchorage looked like a team possessed throughout this contest. They were buzzing on offense, outshooting Hamilton 40 to 27. They were just as engaged on defense, blocking an amazing 21 shots compared to just 9 for the Pistols. But in spite of their dominance, they kept running into a roadblock in the form of Koskinen.
“The way [Koskinen] was stretching out his arms and legs to makes saves, he looked like Inspector Gadget,” said Igloos C Jake Frost, who was held scoreless despite taking 10 shots in the game. “I couldn’t get it under, over, around, or through him. It was one of the best performances I’d ever seen.”
The home team came out of the locker room ready to tilt the ice. They absolutely blitzed the Pistols in the first period, outshooting them 14-5. And yet somehow when the period was over, Anchorage trailed 1-0 thanks to a fluky goal by Pistols RW Brad Stevens that redirected a couple times before going in.
“After the way we played in the first, we should have had 2 or 3 goals for sure,” said LW Jerry Koons. “But we just couldn’t solve Koskinen.”
Koskinen made several impressive saves during that first-period barrage, but two in particular stood out. One came about the midway point of the period, when Igloos C Tom Hoffman got loose on a breakaway and fired a shot ticketed for the upper-right corner of the net, only to be foiled by a great glove save from Koskinen. A few minutes later, during an extended offensive zone shift, Frost got the puck on his stick with a wide-open net. But Koskinen managed to flick his right pad out just in time to smother Frost’s bid.
“I already had my arms halfway in the air because I was sure it was in,” said Frost. “When I realized it wasn’t, I couldn’t believe it.”
In the second period, the Igloos’ frustration mounted as Koskinen continued to stonewall them. Meanwhile, at the 4:15 mark of the period, LW Magnus Gunnarson scored on a nifty curl and drag to make it a 2-0 game. Gunnarson’s shot was just the second for Hamilton in the period and their seventh for the game.
Later in the period, the Igloos went on the power play when Pistols D Elvis Bodett was whistled for interference. In the opening seconds of the man advantage, Frost saw an opening on the short side and whistled a shot toward it. But Koskinen launched himself over to seal the post and stop the shot, leaving the Anchorage center shaking his head in frustration.
The Igloos finally got on the board with 1:11 left in the second, after Hamilton LW Kelvin Starkey committed a hooking penalty in the neutral zone. Koons launched a rocket of a shot the Koskinen got a piece of, but couldn’t keep out of the net.
“That was a hallelujah moment for us,” said Koons. “It was like, ‘Okay, we can actually get it past him!’” But that was the only puck they would put behind him.
The game took a turn for the physical in the latter stages. Pistols D Hercules Mulligan and Igloos LW Veikko Sikanen fought late in the second after Mulligan objected to a rough hit that Sikanen put on Stevens in the corner. In the third, a scrum in front of the Anchorage net turned violent, as poking and jostling turned into face washes and flying fists. Igloos D Tony Citrone and Pistols C Hilliard Macy received fighting majors as a result of that fracas.
The Igloos and Pistols have gotten in four fights in the last two games, and Hamilton coach Keith Shields indicated that he would ask his team to tone it down. “We know this is a heavyweight series, but there’s a difference between being physical and being reckless,” said Shields. “Our guys have stayed on the right side of that line so far, but the last thing I want is for us to see someone important get hurt or suspended because something boils over. Let’s win this with goals, not fists.”
But even when the game got chippy, Koskinen’s excellence remained the major story. Anchorage valiantly killed off some third-period penalties, including a 5-on-3 situation that lasted a minute and a half, but they couldn’t come up with the tying goal. Koskinen wasn’t called upon to make many acrobatic saves down the stretch; instead, he stood tall in net, calmly turning the Anchorage pucks aside.
Game 4 is essentially a must-win for Anchorage. But they can’t help but ask themselves: given how well they played in this game only to come up short, what do they need to do to get a win?
“If we play tomorrow the way we played today, we should get the win,” said Castor. “Koskinen can’t stop them all, can he?”