Sailors Go All In at Deadline

The Seattle Sailors are in a tenuous position in the Western playoff race.  The Anchorage Igloos, widely expected to be a slam-dunk playoff team, have struggled to get much above the .500 mark.  In theory, the second Western playoff spot should be up for grabs.  However, hampered by a dreadful defense, the Sailors have been unable to take advantage, and have been hovering 5 to 7 points behind Anchorage for the last month.

Jay McKay

Given the situation, Seattle essentially had two options: concede the race, or go all in.  “The race has been static for a while now,” said Sailors GM Jay McKay.  “If we stuck with the roster we had, we were going to die fast and quiet.”

Instead, McKay elected to go all in.  The Sailors made a pair of major deals to acquire a couple of big names, at a significant cost in prospects.   “We’re pushing our chips to the middle of the table,” said McKay.  “We think we’ve got the chance to do something special here.”

Lars Karlsson

Seattle’s largest acquisition was the deadline’s top prize.  C Lars Karlsson was the biggest name rumored to be on the block.  The 30-year-old center is a proven star and is having a fantastic year, having scored 19 goals and 25 assists.  But his previous team, the Dakota Jackalopes, are in the midst of a payroll purge, and Karlsson’s contract is up at the end of the season.

The Sailors had a clear need at the center position, and they targeted Karlsson from the start.  But they’d already dealt their first-round pick to Dakota before the season.  In order to rent Karlsson for the stretch run, Seattle had to part with a pair of top prospects – C Dale Wilcox and D Duncan DeShantz – as well as their second-round pick.

“Lars definitely didn’t come cheap,” said McKay.  “But he’s the kind of talent that can really move the needle.  He plugs right into our top line – which was already doing great – and the effect ripples through our entire offense.  He’s a game-changer.”

Hans Mortensen

Of course, Seattle’s offense hasn’t been the issue; it’s their leaky defense that has doomed them.  To address that, the Sailors picked up veteran D Hans Mortensen, 30, from the Kansas City Smoke.  The defender has provided airtight defense in KC and put up 17 assists in 40 games.  To land him, Seattle surrendered another prospect blueliner, T.K. O’Neill.  The 20-year-old O’Neill struggled in his SHL debut, failing to record a point in 22 games before being sent down, but he is regarded as an elite defensive prospect.

“Hans is one of those lockdown D-men that you love to have,” said McKay. “He’s a solid veteran with championship experience, and he can contribute on both ends.  He’s going to really help our playoff push.”

These two moves make Seattle a more formidable opponent, but will it be enough?  And if the Sailors miss the playoffs and Karlsson walks at the end of the season, will they regret their deadline splurge?

“I won’t regret it a bit,” said McKay.  “If you’re not going for it, really going for it, what’s the point?  Maybe this all blows up in my face and I get fired.  That’s okay.  We’d rather take a chance and miss than muddle along and do nothing.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund, who used to coach Dakota, agrees with that assessment: “It’s really nice to be with an organization that goes all out to win, that’s not afraid to spend money and take a shot.  I’m not used to it, but I love it.”

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2017 SHL Finals – Game 2

HERSHEY BLISS 2, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1 (OVERTIME)

After the Hershey Bliss were embarrassed 5-1 in the first game of the SHL Finals, many observers were ready to declare the series over.  The heavily favored Anchorage Igloos had bludgeoned the Bliss, goading them into taking foolish penalties and stonewalling their shots.  Although Bliss coach Chip Barber pointed out that it “only counts as one loss,” many wondered if Hershey would be able to recover.

Turns out that they could.  The Bliss shook off the sting of the previous game, and although it required overtime, they managed to top the Igloos 2-1, tying the series at 1-1.

“When it comes to the playoffs, you’ve got to have a short memory,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet, who scored the game-winning goal.  “If you led a bad game get in your head, you might as well forfeit.  We weren’t going to let that happen.”

In the first game, Hershey committed four penalties in the first period and giving up three goals, digging themselves into a big hole that they were never able to climb out of.  With that in mind, Barber cautioned his team to avoid taking cheap penalties in this game.  It appeared that the Bliss hadn’t heeded their coach’s words when, less than a minute into the game, linesman Ken McGillis made a controversial offsides call that nullified a potential odd-man rush for Hershey.  A frustrated Henry Constantine slammed his stick into the boards and was assessed a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“I was so mad at myself,” said Constantine.  “I thought we’d been ripped off on a bad call, then I went and made it worse.”

But the Bliss managed to kill off the penalty, and avoided taking any others in the period, which ended with no score.  Hershey also managed to avoid taking any penalties in the second period, after which the game still remained scoreless.  Through two periods, the game was about as evenly matched as possible: both teams had taken 18 shots, committed one minor penalty, and not managed to record a goal.

“Coming into the locker room after that second period with it still 0-0 really made us feel good,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “Our confidence level was rising like, ‘Hey, we can hang with these guys.  And we can win this.'”

In the third period, Hershey went on the power play two minutes in when Igloos D Olaf Martinsson received a double minor for spearing Bliss LW Russell Nahorniak.  The Bliss needed only five second to convert, with Valentine blistering a close-range shot off of Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s shoulder and into the net.  “That really silenced the crowd,” said Valentine.  “They knew that the way we were both playing, that might be the only goal of the game.”

The Igloos stepped up their pace after that in an effort to tilt the ice and overwhelm the Bliss.  Hershey held strong for much of the period, but with just under four minutes remaining, Igloos C Jake Frost and LW Jerry Koons got loose on a two-man breakaway that ended with Koons going top-shelf and finding the back of the net to tie it up.  The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena exploded as their heroes received new life.

The din only got louder a couple minutes later when Bliss LW Vonnie McLearen accidentally clipped Igloos LW Ben Summers in the face and got a minor for high-sticking.  The Igloos sent Worthington to the bench for a 6-on-4 advantage.  “We knew we were really going to be tested,” said Valentine.  “We knew we needed to stand strong.”

Stand strong they did, fighting off the penalty and sending the game to overtime.  The Bliss dominated the play in overtime but couldn’t quite break through until Igloos D Hans Mortensen was whistled for slashing, putting Hershey on the power play.

The Bliss didn’t press or panic with the man advantage.  They kept control of the puck, passing it around and waiting for an opportunity.  Sweet finally saw one when Bliss D Reese Milton faked a shot and slid it over to Sweet.  With Worthington out of position, the Bliss winger was able to find the open net, ending the game and giving Hershey a much-needed victory.

After the game, Barber highly praised the work of netminder Brandon Colt.  After a rough outing in Game 1, some fans were calling for Colt to be benched in favor of backup Milo Stafford.  But the coach kept faith in his starter, and Colt rewarded him with a strong game, stopping 33 shots.

“A lot of people were saying Brandon couldn’t handle it at this level, that he melts in the clutch like a bag of Kisses in a hot car,” said Barber.  “I don’t think they’ll be saying that after tonight.  This is a wide-open series.”

Continue reading “2017 SHL Finals – Game 2”

2015 SHL Finals – Game 5

Washington SmallAnchorage SmallWASHINGTON GALAXY 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1

With one more game at home in the SHL Finals, the Washington Galaxy were eager to capture a victory and move to the brink of capturing the Vandy. They got what they wanted, snagging a 3-1 win and leaving the heavily favored Anchorage Igloos needing to claim back-to-back wins in order to avoid a stunning upset loss in the Finals.

“This is not the position we wanted to be in,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “We established ourselves as the best team all season long, and for us to lose the Finals… that would be a real blow.”

Just as they did in game 4, the Galaxy struck first.  When C Eddie Costello scored on a three-on-one a little more than four minutes into the game, the crowd at Constellation Center practically raised the roof with delight.  “The place was really rocking,” said Washington RW Jefferson McNeely.  “The fans were believing right from the start, and we were believing too.”

Igloos C Broni Zhlotkin dampened the crowd’s enthusiasm with less than two minutes left in the period, redirecting a blue-line shot by RW Remi Montrechere and beating Galaxy goaltender Roger Orion stick-side to even the score at 1.

“For us, getting it back even before the break was key,” said Montrechere.  “We didn’t want them getting too confident.  The momentum was shifting away from us, and we needed to snatch it back.”

In a repeat of Game 2, the 1-1 tie persisted through a scoreless second period, as both teams took turns making furious rushes to no effect.  In the first half of the period, the Igloos dominated the action, stepping up the pace of action with their patented fast breaks and trying to overwhelm the depleted Washington skaters.  Orion did a valiant job turning them aside, although on two separate occasions Anchorage rang shots off the post.

In the latter half of the period, Washington took its turn in the driver’s seat, scarcely letting the Igloos get the puck out of their own end and bombarding Worthington with shots.  But the Anchorage netminder held firm, keeping the Galaxy from breaking the tie.  The home fans remained excited, but their cheers took on a nervous edge.

“When [the Igloos] were trying to race past us and we were able to stop them, that got everybody fired up,” said Galaxy LW Casey Thurman.  “But then we threw everything we had at them and we couldn’t get it done either.  And we all felt like this was a must-win game for us.  It was getting intense.”

The Galaxy got a much-needed break 2:47 into the third period.  Although the referees had been calling a fairly loose game to that point, head linesman Scott Pritchard whistled Anchorage D Hans Mortensen for a controversial interference call, sending the Igloos bench into hysterics.  Igloos coach Sam Castor remained miffed about the penalty even after the game.

“We got burned by inconsistent officiating,” said the Anchorage coach.  “If they’d been calling it tight all game, fine.  But they’d already made it clear they were going to let the teams play, at least up until that point.  There were easily a half-dozen things [the Galaxy] did that were worse than what Hans did, with no call.  All I ask for is consistency.  If something’s not a penalty in the first, it shouldn’t be in the third.”

Castor and the Igloos only became more furious when Galaxy LW Todd Douglas beat Worthington top-shelf 32 seconds into the power play to put Washington ahead. “That one really burns,” said Castor.  “It was a knife in the gut at the worst possible time.”

Less than three minutes later, an Anchorage defensive breakdown sprung Douglas on a breakaway; he fed C Drustan Zarkovich, who slid the puck under Worthington’s right pad for a 3-1 lead.

“You’ve really got to look in the mirror if Drustan beats you on a breakaway,” Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle quipped after the game.  “He’s a great guy and a good player, but he’s not exactly a racehorse out there.”

After securing the two-goal edge, the Galaxy spent the rest of the game in a defensive mode.  With Orion (30 saves) continuing to provide stout netminding, Washington preserved their win and took a 3-2 lead in the series.

“All we’ve got to do now is win one in Anchorage, and we’ve already done that,” said Thurman.  “We’re ready for this.”

The Igloos headed home fueled by anger at the late call against Mortensen.  “A lot of guys in here feel like the refs won this one, not the other team,” said Frost.  “We’re not looking for the refs to decide this series.  We want to take care of business ourselves.”

Continue reading “2015 SHL Finals – Game 5”