- On Monday, the Dakota Jackalopes activated C Tanner Brooks from the injured list. Shortly before the All-Star break, Brooks suffered an upper-body injury. Although the injury initially did not seem that serious, Brooks wound up missing over three weeks. As the Jackalopes had an available roster spot, they did not need to make a compensating move to activate Brooks.
- Also on Monday, the Hershey Bliss‘ CHL affiliate in Milwaukee placed LW Karl Gjovik on the injured list. Gjovik exited in the first period of Sunday’s 3-1 win over Cleveland after being upended on a devastating check, and did not return. He is expected to miss at least two weeks. To replace Gjovik, Milwaukee signed F Jerry Cazenovia to a short-term contract.
- On Wednesday, the Hamilton Pistols activated C Marco Venezio from the injured list. The veteran center missed 10 games with a lower=body injury suffered just before the All-Star break. In order to make room for Venezio, the Pistols reassigned C Hilliard Macy to their CHL affiliate in Oshawa, and released F Bobby Warner from Oshawa.
- Wednesday was the trading deadline. The following trades were consummated at the deadline:
- The Michigan Gray Wolves traded RW Gordon Lunsford to the Boston Badgers for RW Rory Socarra. (More details here.) After the trade, Boston demoted RW Felix Delorme to their CHL affiliate in Hartford, and recalled F Jacques Bacon from Hartford.
- The Gray Wolves traded LW Misha Petronov, F Cary Estabrook, and D Brandon Arrowood to the New York Night for LW Flynn Danner, F Henry Constantine, and D Anson Brank. (More details here.) After the trade, Michigan demoted LW Fendrick Scanlan to their CHL affiliate in Cleveland, and New York promoted RW Harris Wondolowski from their affiliate in Utah.
- The Dakota Jackalopes traded D Victor Addison to Boston in exchange for D Jackson Creed. After the trade, the Badgers demoted D Bjorn Tollefson to their minor-league affiliate in Hartford.
- Michigan traded C Warren Marlow to the Quebec Tigres in exchange for C Phil Miller, LW Carl Bleyer, and a 1st-round draft pick. (More details here.) After the trade, the Gray Wolves released F Caleb Moulton. The Tigres demoted C Dwight Flynn to their CHL affiliate in Halifax, and signed F Tim Daisey to a minor-league deal.
- On Saturday, the Anchorage Igloos recalled RW Jean Pierre Fleury from their CHL affiliate in Minnesota. The Igloos demoted Fleury to Minnesota during the All-Star break, and he played brilliantly there, recording 19 points in 12 games, including the CHL’s first-ever five-goal game. To make room for Fleury, the Igloos reassigned RW Lionel LaNeige to Minnesota.
According to New York Night GM Jay McKay, letting LW Misha Petronov leave in free agency was his biggest mistake. Petronov spent three seasons in New York, but after a mildly disappointing 2019 season, the Night allowed him to walk away and sign a 2-year, $2 million contract with the Michigan Gray Wolves. But Petronov rebounded toward his career norms in Michigan, while New York has badly missed his production on the wing. So McKay reversed his mistake on Wednesday, re-acquiring Petronov from the Wolves, along with F Cary Estabrook and D Brandon Arrowood, in exchange for LW Flynn Danner, F Henry Constantine, and D Anson Brank.
‘We knew we wanted some help on the second line,” said McKay. “And we talked about a number of guys, but in the end I kept coming back to Misha. He’s a guy we know and he’s a good fit for our team, so why not bring him back? Then it was just a matter of making the salaries work.”
In 42 games with the Wolves, Petronov put up 31 points (9 goals, 22 assists) and a team-leading +12 rating. He has generally been less involved on the defensive end and along the boards, which made him a somewhat awkward fit in Michigan’s style of play, but suits New York’s run-and-gun approach perfectly.
McKay said that the winger will slot right back into his old slot on the second line, beside C Rod Remington and RW Ivan “Trainwreck” Trujwirnek. “I am glad to be back with my old friends,” said Petronov. “It will be just like my former times again.”
Along with Petronov, the Night acquired a couple young players with potential upside. The 25-year-old Estabrook was the first player signed by the Boston Badgers. He has struggled to convert on his potential in the SHL, due both to the lingering effects of a knee injury he suffered in college and his struggles with alcohol and conditioning. He signed with Michigan in the offseason, and clashed with then-coach Ron Wright virtually from the beginning. He appeared in only 10 games with the Wolves, failing to record a point, and then he was banished to the minors. McKay said that Estabrook would be assigned to New York’s farm team in Utah initially, but he would be called up before the end of the season.
“We believe that Cary has a lot to offer this club,” McKay told reporters, “And I’m a big believer in second chances, and Cary deserves one.”
Arrowood, meanwhile, is a 24-year-old offensive-minded defenseman. He has shown a consistent scoring touch in the minors, but his deficiencies on the defensive end have prevented him from earning a call-up to the majors.
In exchange, New York gave up a pair of prospects that should aid the Wolves as they move into a rebuilding phase. Danner is a 24-year-old winger who has produced regular 50-point seasons in the minors. He made his SHL debut this season and produced promising results, with 13 points (7 goals, 6 assists) and a +6 rating in 28 games with New York. He showed some upside on defense as well, with 23 blocks.
“Flynn checks a lot of the boxes we’re looking for,” said Michigan GM Tim Carrier. “He’s a strong 200-foot skater, he can create his own shot, and he puts in good effort on defense.”
Brank, meanwhile, is a 20-year-old blueliner who was drafted by the Night two years ago. He lost a position battle in training camp, but he produced strong numbers in Utah, putting up 22 points (5 goals, 17 assists) in 41 games.
Michigan also adds Constantine, a veteran on an expiring contract who can play any forward position. He should be able to fill in an provide some short-term offensive help for the Wolves.
While the Wolves are looking to the long term, the Night are focused on the present. McKay came up with a typically creative trade to bolster their offense. Given the crowded playoff picture in the East, however, the GM will need to hope that neither Danner nor Brank gives him a reason to regret this deal down the road.
(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.”
The SHL has had its share of close division races over the years. Some of them have even gone all the way to final day of the regular season, such as 2016’s epic Washington-Hershey contest or last season’s showdown between Hamilton and Quebec. But never before has the identity of both division winners been decided during the regular-season finale. This season, however, the battles in both the East and West went the distance, setting up an epic slate of games on Saturday.
Out West, the defending champion Anchorage Igloos entered the last day one point ahead of the upstart Seattle Sailors. The Sailors finished their season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, while the Igloos hosted the Kansas City Smoke for their finale. The Sailors, who had already clinched their first-ever playoff berth, expressed confidence heading into the game. “We know what we need to do,” said RW Vince Mango, “now we just need to go out and do it.”
The Sailors got off to a fast start. Shockers D Rusty Anderson went to penalty box just seven seconds into the game, and Sailors LW Rod “Money” Argent cashed in on the ensuing power play to give Seattle the early lead. Later in the period, D Bud Gatecliff banged home a short from the point to make it 2-0. The score remained that way throughout the rest of that period and the next, and it appeared the Sailors were set to get the victory they needed.
In the third period, however, Saskatchewan got their game in gear. In the opening minutes of the period, LW Troy Chamberlain emerged from a scrum in front of the net and tucked a shot under the crossbar to put Saskatchewan on the board. Just 24 seconds after that, C Cyril Perignon deflected a slapper past the glove of Seattle goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to tie the score. A half-minute later, the Sailors reclaimed the lead on a short-side blast by D Hans Mortensen. But Saskatchewan wasn’t finished; less than three minutes after Mortensen’s tally, Anderson tied things back up with a blast from the slot that got between Ross’s pads. Both teams kept the pressure on, combining for 26 shots in the period, but the tie persisted through the end of regulation.
Going into overtime, Seattle had a choice: play defensively to preserve the tie, or go for the win? For the Sailors, it was no choice at all: “We wanted the W,” said Mango. In the first minute of the extra session, Mango nearly won as he ripped slapshot that dribbled through the legs of Shockers goalie Shawn Stickel, but the puck stopped on the goal line and Stickel fell on it before anyone could jam it home. Finally, just over two minutes in, Chamberlain got loose on a breakaway and went top shelf to beat Ross and win the game.
“Missed it by that much,” said Mango, holding his thumb and forefinger just slightly apart.
With nothing to play for, the Igloos lost 3-2 to Kansas City, but still won the division. The celebration was fairly subdued, as Anchorage is focused on winning its second straight Vandy. “Everyone in this room isn’t going to be satisfied unless we go all the way,” said Igloos C Jake Frost. “Winning the division is nice, but it’s not enough.”
Meanwhile, in the East, the Hershey Bliss entered the finale a point up on the red-hot Hamilton Pistols. The Bliss expected to have the division clinched already, as they’d entered the final week with a five-point lead. But they proceeded to drop two of their three games on the week, while the Pistols won all three of theirs. Still, all Hershey needed to do to ensure that the division would be theirs was to win or tie against the last-place Boston Badgers.
Unfortunately for the Bliss, even though they outshot the Badgers 40-26, they were unable to take the victory. Hershey was stymied by a brilliant goaltending performance from Boston backup Carson Wagner. Then, with just over five minutes left in a tie game, Bliss RW Noah Daniels was called for a controversial interference penalty on Boston’s Pascal Royal, one that left coach Chip Barber and the Bliss bench hollering in frustration; they contended that Royal should have been penalized for embellishment instead. Their anger only grew more acute when Badgers LW Lix Darnholm scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
“I only hope that the division doesn’t wind up turning on that call,” said Barber after the game. “You’d hate to see that. It would be like biting into a Hershey’s Kiss and finding out someone hid a Lemonhead in the middle: a sour ending to what should be sweet.”
Hershey’s loss opened the door for the Pistols. Standing in their way were their bitter rivals, the New York Night. Nick Foster‘s club was officially eliminated from contention earlier in the week, but they relished the opportunity to deny the Pistols the title.
“If you can’t make it to the promised land, the next best thing is stopping your enemy from getting there,” Foster said. “That’s the hockey version of the Golden Rule.”
The game unfolded at a furious pace: both teams combined for an astounding 43 shots in the first period alone, with Hamilton taking 26 of them. But New York goalie Sherman Carter was in top form, turning aside all those shots except one, a slapper from Pistols C Henry Constantine that hit the crossbar and went in. Night C Tom Hoffman answered with a bouncing shot that hopped over Hamilton netminder Ron Mason‘s pad, creating a 1-1 tie that would last the rest of the period.
LW Misha Petronov gave New York its first lead just five seconds into the second period, bringing the crowd at Neon Sky Center to its feet, razzing Mason with sing-song chants. Those chants didn’t last long, however, as Pistols D Albie Glasco tied it up a mere 16 seconds later with a shot from just inside the blueline that got past a screened Carter. Just under two minutes after that, LW Steven Alexander fired home a slapper from his favorite spot between the faceoff circles to put Hamilton back on top.
In the third period, it took Night C Rod Remington just 30 seconds to rip a shot just above Mason’s blocker to tie things up again. The New York fans resumed their sing-song taunts of Mason, later adding Alexander to their chants as he shanked shots or fired them just wide. The Pistols thought they had taken the lead when C Calvin Frye scored on a power play at the midpoint of the period, but Foster challenged and sit turned out that Hamilton had entered the offensive zone offside. When the tally came off the board, the fans roared with delight. Hamilton had a few grade-A chances later in the period, but Carter kept stonewalling them, and the score remained deadlocked at the end of regulation.
In the overtime period, the Night focused on grinding the clock as much as possible, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie. Hamilton and Hershey wound up with the same number of points, but Hershey had more total wins, so they won the title. (The same thing happened to the Pistols last season, as they ended up in a tie with Quebec on points, but the Tigres had more victories.)
True to form, the Night celebrated as though they’d won the division. As the game ended, the New York players dogpiled at center ice. In the locker room, they sprayed each other with champagne and blasted victory music. “It’s a thing of beauty, it really is,” said Foster, wiping the bubbly out of his eyes. “For us to prevent the Nutcracker and his gang of clowns from winning the division, it warms my heart. It really does. If they wind up having to play Game 7 on enemy ice and they wind up losing to those Hershey softies, I hope they’ll think of me.”
The Pistols, naturally, didn’t appreciate New York’s attitude. “I thought the way they played in overtime and then their little post-game party was totally lacking in class and sportsmanship,” said coach Keith Shields. “But then, that’s typically of the way they operate. Fortunately, we’ve got enough talent that we can win in the playoffs with or without home-ice advantage. And since [the Night] will be watching the playoffs on TV once again, they might see if they can learn something.”
Alexander was more blunt than his coach. “I believe in karma,” he told reporters, “and that’s why I’m confident that Foster and his boys will never win anything. They’ve got a loser’s mentality; any team that celebrates like that for a game they didn’t even win, for a playoff spot that they didn’t get, is just pathetic. Enjoy the golf course, you [jerks].”
From the beginning of this season, the Hamilton Pistols have made it clear that they’re a force to be reckoned with. They’ve led the Eastern Division wire-to-wire, and they haven’t faded as the season has gone on.
But whenever a reporter has asked Pistols coach Keith Shields a question about the postseason, he as always balked. “We haven’t clinched anything yet, and I’m not about to assume,” was his refrain.
Shields can officially let go of his refrain now. On Tuesday, the Pistols defeated the Kansas City Smoke 4-2 to clinch their first-ever trip to the postseason.
As soon as the clocked ticked down to 0:00 at Heartland Telecom Center, the Pistols raced to center ice and formed a pig pile. They whooped and hollered as they flung their gloves and helmets in the air. “If we’d been at home, we’d have gone up into the stands to celebrate with the fans,” said Pistols C Calvin Frye. Instead, they spotted a couple of fans in Hamilton sweaters behind the bench and invited them on the ice to join the celebration.
After they finished their on-ice celebration, they adjourned to the locker room to continue the party. Songs like “My Shot” and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” blasted over the stereo while the young Pistols showered each other with beer, champagne, barbecue sauce, and whatever else they could find. They took turns making up impromptu raps to honor each other. They smoked giant cigars.
“I know you’re supposed to be cool and act like you’ve been there before and save the big celebration for the Vandy,” said Shields. “But you know what? We’ve got a young bunch of guys, and they haven’t been here before. It’s only your first time once, so why not enjoy it? There’ll be plenty of time to be cool and mature later.”
The dynamic duo that powers the Pistols, LW Steven Alexander and RW Claude Lafayette, spent the evening hugging and toasting each other. Alexander blinked back tears as he reflected on the journey that got him here. “Claude is my brother,” Alexander said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be playing hockey. I might be dead in an alley somewhere. But he got me here, and ever since then we’ve been working and dreaming for this moment. Now we’re here, and we’re not throwing away our shot!”
Shields heaped praise on his team. “Ever since the first couple of weeks, when we got off to such a good start, I’ve been warning them, ‘It’s not going to be this easy. There’s a lot of good teams in the division, and they’ll make a run at us. We can’t take anything for granted.’ And they haven’t! They’ve worked hard and stayed strong. I don’t think anyone’s going to want to face us.”
C Henry Constantine, who won the Vandy last season with Hershey and signed with the Pistols in the offseason, is impressed by this club. “We had a good, talented club [in Hershey], but this team is scary,” he said. “I don’t know how anybody keeps up with our top line, they’re so fast. And we’ve got good depth, and more speed on the bottom line. We’ve got a rough, hard-hitting bunch on defense. This is a crew that can hang with clubs like Michigan and Anchorage and give them real trouble, now and for years to come.”
Before they can vie for the Vandy, though, the Pistols will need to win the Eastern playoff. Their likely opponent, the Quebec Tigres, will do their best to frustrate and slow down Hamilton’s speedy forward lines. “Quebec’s a tough team, and they’ll push us hard,” said Shields. “I’m certainly not going to look past them.”
But the challenges of the playoffs are tomorrow’s problem. For today, the young Pistols are happy just to celebrate how far they’ve come. “History has its eyes on us,” said Alexander. “But when our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight. Let’s have another round tonight!”
Coming into today’s winner-take-all Game 7, Hershey Bliss coach Chip Barber was honest about the challenge his team faced. “It’s a heck of an assignment, that’s for sure,” said Barber. “One game for all the marbles, on enemy ice, and we’re missing our top scorer,” Barber told reporters. “How’s it going to come out? I don’t know. What I do know is that every man in here is going to give everything he has to win it. We’re not holding anything back, because there is no tomorrow.”
In order to dramatize the stakes of the game, Barber placed a bag of marbles in every locker in the visiting locker room. “This is it, we’re playing for all the marbles,” the coach told his players. “And I know you’re all ready to go all in for the victory.” One by one, each player stepped to the center of the room and tossed their marbles into a big bucket with the Bliss logo on it.
Next, injured captain Justin Valentine stepped up. “I’m not going to be able to win it for us out there today,” Valentine said. “So I need you guys to go out there and win it for me. I’ve got total faith in everybody on this team. I know you’ve got what it takes to win this one. Let’s do it!” Valentine then pulled out his iPhone and cued up the ’90s pop song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba, with its inspiring refrain “I get knocked down, but I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down.”
“Maybe it was a little hokey,” admitted the captain, “but it put us in the right mood for the game.”
It definitely seems to have worked, as Hershey managed to eke out a 4-3 win in overtime to stun the Anchorage Igloos and win their first Vandy.
“We’ve been counted out so many times,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet. “But nobody in here ever gave up, nobody ever lost hope. We believed in ourselves, and that carried us through.”
Hershey certainly could have lost hope after the first period, when the Igloos scored twice. LW Les Collins got Anchorage on the board 10:31 into the game with a shot from the half-wall that snuck in under Bliss goalie Brandon Colt‘s armpit. Then with 30 seconds left in the period, the Igloos got set up in Hershey’s end, and LW Jerry Koons deflected a shot past Colt to make it 2-0. The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena roared its approval, thinking the game was in the bag.
“That was a real gut-check moment for us,” said C Henry Constantine. “We knew we were about to let it slip out of our grasp.”
But Anchorage switched to a defensive, trapping style in the second period and they succeeded in slowing the game down and frustrating Hershey’s attempts to generate offensive momentum. As the minutes ticked away, Anchorage’s two-goal lead loomed larger and larger. The Bliss needed a hero. True to the tenor of this series, help came from an unexpected source.
When Hershey acquired LW Vonnie McLearen at the deadline, they hoped he would give them the offensive jolt they needed to take the division title. The deal didn’t quite work out as expected; McLearen struggled to mesh with his new teammates and managed only 2 goals and 10 points in 21 games with the Bliss. He was a non-factor through the first six games of the Finals, failing to record a point and skating anonymously on a third line that achieved virtually nothing in its limited ice time.
But when the Bliss needed a spark in today’s game, it was McLearen who provided it, scoring a pair of goals in the span or 80 seconds to tie the game and stun the Anchorage crowd. When three and a half minutes left in the second period, Hershey finally achieved sustained ice time in the offensive zone. After failing to find a good look at the net in several tries, D Ruslan Gromov fired a hard slapper well wide of the net. But McLearen shook free of his defender and deflected the puck past Igloos goalie Riley Lattimore. Hershey was on the board at last.
But McLearen wasn’t finished. Just over a minute later, the Bliss managed to break the Anchorage press, springing McLearen on an odd-man rush with linemates Sven Danielsen and Lee Fleming. Danielsen headed for the net, faked a hard slapshot, then flipped the puck back to McLearen, who found the upper left corner of the net to make it 2-2.
“Just like that, it was like somebody pulled the plug on the crowd,” said Constantine.
Early in the third period, a visibly frustrated Igloos team committed three straight penalties, putting themselves on the defensive for the first several minutes, including a 5-on-3 situation for over a minute. Anchorage managed to surivive the two-man deficit, but were still on the penalty kill when the Bliss took their first lead of the game. D Nikolai Kulkarov, on a feed from – who else? – McLearen, fired a shot from the blue line that beat a screened Lattimore.
Igloos coach Sam Castor was sharply critical of his team’s play during the opening minutes of the third period. “That was the only time in the series when we really fell down,” said Castor. “We let the game get into our heads, and we played dumb hockey. That isn’t like us, and it cost us.”
Kulkarov’s goal seemed to snap the Igloos out of their funk. On the ensuing faceoff, Bliss D Pierre Chappelle took a double-minor for spearing Collins, and Anchorage cashed in on the power play. C Derek Humplik tied it up with a laser from the top of the right faceoff circle. The score brought the crowd back to life, and seemed to spur both teams on. The second half of the third period was intense, as both teams went flat-out, setting up golden chances and making amazing stops. Kulkarov fired up his team with a series of shot blocks that left him visibly pained but kept the Igloos from scoring the go-ahead goal. On the other end, Lattimore made several brilliant stops, earning a round of stick taps from his teammates.
After 60 minutes, the game remained tied. Sudden-death overtime is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in sports, and when it occurs in a deciding game, the tension ratchets even higher. Both squads were running on fumes and adrenaline in the extra session. “I think we were all dead on our skates at that point,” said Sweet. “The only thing that kept us going was the stakes of the game.”
Perhaps fortunately for both sides, overtime didn’t last long. Just over three minutes in, RW Tyler Cloude turned the puck over in the offensive end. Danielsen corraled it and flung a head man pass to Fleming, who found McLearen on a breakaway. The winger streaked toward the Anchorage net, deked a shot toward the right post, then slid it under a sprawling Lattimore for the winning goal. McLearen celebrated his hat trick by collapsing to the ice and sliding into the boards, before bouncing up and into the arms of his teammates.
“It was a real mountaintop moment,” said Sweet. “It’s the highest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Before the Bliss retired to the locker to spray each other with champagne and chocolate syrup, they shook hands with the Igloos and then received the Vandy from Commissioner Perry Mitchell. The commissioner called Hershey the “never-say-die team” and added, “You showed the skeptics just what an incredible team you are, and you proved that you have the heart of a champion.”
There was no question who would get to take the ceremonial first lap with the trophy. Valentine took his time skating around the ice, both to avoid aggravating his injured leg and to soak in the moment as long as he could.
“We went through a lot to get here,” said the captain as tears rolled down his cheek. “Finally, we made it!”
Coming into today’s pivotal Game 4, Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor insisted that it was not a must-win game for his team. “Look, we’ve got to break serve,” Castor told reporters before the game. “We know that. They won one in our barn, so we have to win one in their barn. What order we do it in doesn’t matter, as long as we do win one.”
Despite Castor’s statement, the coach must have been relieved that his team was able to prevail over the Hershey Bliss in a close contest, 2-1, and tie the series at two games apiece. “Really good to see the boys take care of business today,” said the Igloos coach. “I think this one really swung the series in our favor.”
After a couple of slower-paced, defensive games, the Igloos turned on the jets and dominated possession of the puck, outshooting Hershey 41-23. “We hadn’t had a game yet this series where we’ve really been in control,” said C Jake Frost. “This time, we were able to dictate the play.”
Although they were able to dominate the puck, the Igloos weren’t able to run away with the game thanks to the heroics of Bliss goalie Brandon Colt. The Hershey netminder made a number of dazzling saves to keep the game close. In the first two periods, the Igloos were only able to pierce Colt once, when D Dave Frederick put a rebound just inside the right post with five and a half minutes left in the first period. The score would have been much higher if not for multiple acrobatic saves by Colt, as he bounced around the crease and made save after save.
“Colter was like Inspector Gadget out there,” said Bliss C Henry Constantine. “Anytime there was a shot that looked like it was going in, he’d shoot out his arm or his leg and make a crazy stop. He was keeping us in it.”
Bliss RW Christopher Hart tied the game eight minutes into the third period by whistling a shot just underneath Igloos goalie Ty Worthington‘s left pad. The crowd at Chocolate Center came alive, and on the visiting bench, the Igloos became agitated.
“We felt like we’d been getting the better end of the play, but it wasn’t showing up on the scoreboard,” said Anchorage C Nile Bernard. “We felt like the next goal was going to win it, and we had to make sure it was us.”
Bernard was right; the next goal did decide the game, and the Igloos got it. The winning tally came from a somewhat unlikely source. LW Ben Summers arrived in Anchorage this season as a free agent, and he quickly became a favorite among fans and teammates alike as a quality third-line contributor. But the top line has driven the action for both teams in this series, so few were expecting Summers to be the difference-maker. But with less than five minutes remaining in the game, he deflected a shot from RW Tyler Cloude past Colt for the go-ahead tally. There were some anxious moments for Anchorage while the referees reviewed the goal, since Hershey argued that Summers had played the puck with a high stick. But after review, the goal was upheld, and the Igloos celebrated.
“Benny really came through for us,” said Frost. “Just like he’s come through us all year.”
It was another physical game, with Bliss D Ruslan Gromov drawing the ire of some on the Anchorage bench after getting into his third fight in the last two games, this time going after LW Les Collins. Castor indicated that he thought the league should consider suspending Gromov, because “he’s not playing hockey out there. He’s trying to turn this series into a street fight.” He paused, then added with a smile, “Of course, we’ve got the upper hand, so we’re not going to press the point.”
Do the Igloos really have the upper hand in a tied series? Hershey coach Chip Barber reacted to Castor’s confident talk with a smirk. “Sam’s a sly one, I’ll give him that,” said Barber. “He’s walking around like M&Ms wouldn’t melt in his mouth. But he’s more nervous than he lets on. This is a wide-open series, and anyone can win it. He can’t talk that away.”