Igloos Stumble Into All-Star Break

Coming up to the midpoint of the season, the Anchorage Igloos expected to be comfortably anchored in a playoff spot.  After a dreadful start to the season, the Igloos got onto their usual hot streak, and expected to keep the positive momentum rolling right into another Western Division title.  But over the last three weeks, Anchorage has gone into a slump, winning only 2 of their last 11 games.  Now, at the All-Star break, the Igloos are just barely above the .500 mark.  If the season ended today, they would miss the postseason for the first time since 2016.

“Obviously, we’re not playing up to our expectations right now,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “There are definitely some areas of our game that we need to tighten up.”

Over the last week and a half, the Western clubs have traveled to the East for the first time this season.  The road trip has been a fiasco for Anchorage.  It began well enough, with a 3-1 win over Boston.  But they haven’t won since.  Their next four games were each agonizing one-goal losses.  They managed to salvage a point on Saturday by tying Quebec 2-2, but in the process, they blew a two-goal lead in the third period.

“I feel like we’re getting some good looks, but we’re not getting the puck luck,” said LW Les Collins.  “It’s frustrating.”

The numbers back up Collins’ statement.  They’re continuing to generate as many shots as usual, but their shooting percentage has plummeted during their recent slump.  Before they hit their current skid, Anchorage was converting over 10% of their shots; in the last two weeks, they’ve managed to score on just 6.3% of them.  They had been averaging 4 goals per game; it’s been almost two weeks since they’ve scored that many in a game.

Their shooting drought has been paired with a smaller but significant dip on defense; together, it adds up to their current 2-6-3 slide.

One of the chief culprits of the team’s shooting woes, C Jake Frost, has been mired in a season-long slump.  Thus far, he has only 11 goals on the season, just over half as many as he had at this point last season.  Not coincidentally, his shooting percentage for the year is only 9.3%, about half his normal rate.  He has fewer goals than second-line center Tom Hoffman, who arrived in Anchorage as a reclamation project in the offseason.

“I don’t know what the problem is,” said Frost.  “I know defenses overload on me a lot, but they always have.  I’m glad that we’ve got other guys who can carry the load, but I can’t help but feel responsible for the way we’re struggling right now.”

Overall, though, the Igloos don’t seem alarmed about their current predicament.  “We’re not going to hit the panic button because we’re one point out of a playoff spot at the halfway point,” said Castor.  “We’ve got a battle-tested group here, and we’ve overcome tough times before.  We just have to get back to playing the way we know how.”

But the young and frisky Shockers, powered by the off-kilter of their “Ministry of Fun,” don’t intend to make it easy on the Igloos.  The second half is shaping up to be an epic battle.

Igloos Rebound, but Keefe Fears Complacency

In recent seasons, the Anchorage Igloos have mastered the art of the slow start.  For the last three years, the Igloos have stumbled out of the gate, prompting a round of stories about whether the team’s reign at the top of the Western Division was finally over.

In 2018, the Igloos were 12-13-0 at the end of the season’s fifth week.  Last year, Anchorage got off to a dreadful 3-6-3 start and were still mired in fourth place with a sub-.500 mark as late as Week 5.  But shortly thereafter, the Igloos took off on runs that quickly re-established them in their usual perch in the standings.  In both seasons, the Igloos reached the SHL Finals, in ’18, they won their second Vandy.

This season, the Igloos’ season-opening swoon was their worst yet.  After losing 7-3 to the Portland Bluebacks last Sunday, Anchorage’s record stood at 2-7-0.  It was the worst record in the league, the first time that the Igloos had ever earned that dubious distinction.  The roster underwent significant turnover before this season, and the West’s other teams have been growing stronger by the season.  Was this the year that the Igloos were finally done as a contender?

And then, right on schedule, they turned things around. Saturday’s wild 8-7 win over the Washington Galaxy was the Igloos’ seventh win in a row.  They’ve lifted themselves out of the basement all the way into a tie for second in the West.

Ted Keefe

There’s plenty of time left in the season, but given the history, odds are that the Igloos will once again finish with one of the league’s best records.  So what’s with the lackluster starts?  Veteran D Ted Keefe thinks he knows the answer, and he doesn’t like it.

Keefe spoke to reporters after Saturday’s victory about the team’s tortoise-like starts.  He argued that because the team is so accustomed to deep playoff runs, they’ve become bored by the regular season.

“I think we take it for granted,” said Keefe.  “We figure we can sleepwalk through the first couple weeks, or even the first month, and then flip the switch and bam, we’re back to the playoffs.  It hasn’t burned us yet, but it’s a dangerous game, if you ask me.”

Keefe went on to point out that the West is a lot more competitive than it used to be.  “In the old days, Michigan was the only one you needed to worry about,” the defenseman said.  “But now Portland’s damn good, and Saskatchewan’s solid too.  Even KC and Dakota are playing better lately.

“It’s not written in the Constitution or the Bible or anywhere that we’re guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.  And there’s no guarantee that even if we do get to the playoffs, we’ll go all the way.  If we want to win the Vandy, we’ve got to play Vandy-quality hockey all season long.  Bad hockey builds bad habits.”

Jake Frost

C Jake Frost, who has a habit of slow starts himself, disagreed with Keefe’s assessment.  “I don’t think we’re taking anything for granted,” said Frost.  “But I do think that when you go deep in the playoffs every year and have shorter offseasons, it takes a little while to play your best hockey.  We’ll be there when it counts; I’m confident.”

Igloos coach Sam Castor agreed with the spirit of Keefe’s critique, if not its specifics.  “Our underlying numbers have been solid, even when we were losing,” the coach pointed out.  “We were taking good shots, they just weren’t going in.  And it’s taken some time to get the new guys integrated into our scheme.

“That said, I think Ted’s right to worry about losing our edge.  If I ever get even a hint of our guys taking the postseason for granted, I’ll going to stop it cold.  I’m not saying I’ll bag-skate ‘em till they drop, but they’ll get the message.  There’s no such thing as a lifetime achievement playoff spot.  You have to earn it every year, and our guys know that.”

If this year’s early swoon ends up being a temporary blip as usual, this will all be forgotten.  But it Anchorage winds up missing the playoffs, they may wish they’d listened to their veteran defenseman.

Mango Rips Anchorage, Igloos Clap Back

Portland Bluebacks star Vince Mango, whose outspoken nature has sparked controversy on more than one occasion, did it again this week.  On the eve of a matchup against the Anchorage Igloos, Mango told a reporter that he would rather quit hockey than play in Anchorage.

Mango made this remark during an interview for a profile that ran in a Portand newspaper last Friday.  The reporter asked Mango about his favorite and least favorite SHL road cities.  The winger cited New York as his favorite.  “All that action, all that energy, all the great restaurants,” said Mango, who is a noted foodie.  “The Big Apple’s the greatest city in the world!  From a nightlife perspective, you can’t beat it.”

Vince Mango

Mango then discussed his least favorite places.  “Most guys would probably say Rapid City [home of the Dakota Jackalopes] ‘cause it’s so small,” said Mango, “but I actually kind of like it.  Mount Rushmore and that big hill with all the dino statues on it [Dinosaur Park].  If you’ve got an off-day, maybe take a trip out to Wall Drug and ride the jackalope.  That place is totally made for Instagram!

“No, the place I can’t stand is Anchorage,” Mango continued.  “I’m a Florida boy, and I don’t like the cold, and that place is cold as hell.  Have you been there in the winter?  You step out of the airport and, like, your lungs freeze.  There’s nothing to do except, like, eat whale blubber and find stuff to build a fire with.  There’s like two hours of daylight, and that’s if you’re lucky and the sun isn’t behind a cloud.  I’d probably like it okay if I was a penguin, but I’m not.”

In an act of unfortunate timing, the profile ran a couple days before the Bluebacks traveled to Arctic Circle Arena to face the Igloos, who were seeking their first win of the season.  Predictably, Anchorage’s players were less than impressed.

“I love it here,” said LW Jerry Koons.  “The cold takes a little getting used to, but it’s a warm and friendly city once you get to know it.  The people are awesome, and there’s plenty to do.  Of course, I’m more into hiking and skiing than I am into reality TV, which seems to be Vince’s thing.”

“I’m not sure why Vince wouldn’t want to play for a team that’s gone to four Finals and won two Vandys,” added C Jake Frost.  “I think that says more about him than it does about Anchorage.”

When Mango’s name was announced during introductions, the fans booed and littered the ice with toy penguins.  In response, the Portland star waved and smiled.  During the game, the fans booed every time Mango touched the puck.

The Igloos were happy to make Mango eat his words, scoring five goals in the first period to chase goalie Jesse Clarkson and cruising to an 8-1 rout.

Mango proclaimed himself amused by the response.  “They’re sticking up for their town, and that’s cool,” said the winger.  “If this starts some beef between us and them, nothing wrong with that.  Rivalries mean ratings, and I’m all about the ratings.”

Last Season’s Finalists Headed in Opposite Directions

Last year’s SHL Finals featured a heavyweight battle for the ages, as the upstart contender Hamilton Pistols faced off against the defending champion Anchorage Igloos.  In the end, the bout went to the challengers, as the Pistols dethroned the Igloos in six games.

Many around the league believe that the 2020 Finals could feature a Hamilton-Anchorage rematch.  After the first week of the season, the Pistols certainly appear to be on the path for a return playoff trip.  Not so for the Igloos, however; they staggered through the worst opening week they’ve ever had.

In Hamilton, the Pistols kicked off their title defense in fine fashion.  After a come-from-behind 4-3 win over Washington on opening night, the champs faced off against their Canadian rivals, the Quebec Tigres.  The grudge match quickly turned into a slaughter, as the Pistols scored three goals in the span of just over four minutes in the first period and wound up winning 5-1.  They then headed back to Gunpowder Armory for their home opener, a rematch against the Galaxy.  This time, Hamilton rolled to an easy 4-1 win.  Their winning streak came to an end on Saturday against Boston, but they came from behind thanks to a third-period power-play goal from LW Steven Alexander to salvage a 3-3 tie.

In virtually every category, the Pistols are at or near the top of the league.  They’re leading the league in average shots per game (40.5), and tied with Michigan for the most goals (16).  Their 26.7% power-play conversion rate is second in the league.  Their 1.96 GAA is third in the SHL, and they’re allowing the fewest shots per game (26.5).  All but three Hamilton skaters has recorded at least one point.  Starting netminder Lasse Koskinen is 3-0-0 with a 1.67 GAA and a .938 save percentage.

“We’re picking up right where we left off last season,” said coach Keith Shields.  “Nobody came into camp looking fat and happy, or wanting to rest on their laurels.  Everybody showed up lean and hungry and ready to repeat.  I couldn’t be happier with the way we’re starting things off here.”

In Anchorage, on the other hand, the first week of the season has been an utter nightmare.  They opened the season at home against the Kansas City Smoke, who finished with the league’s worst record last season.  It should have been a gimme game, but it wasn’t.  Smoke goalie Rocky Goldmire stopped 41 Anchorage shots, and D Gary Hermine scored the go-ahead goal with less than two minutes left in the game to secure a 2-1 win for the visitors.  After that deflating opener, they traveled down to Dakota, facing a Jackalopes team that is in the midst of a multi-season teardown.  But instead of shaking off the opening loss, the Igloos found themselves by rookie netminder Lorne Mollenkamp, who stopped all 31 shots to stymie Anchorage 2-0.  On Thursday, Anchorage traveled to Cadillac Place to face their old nemesis, the Michigan Gray Wolves.  The old foes dueled to a scoreless draw through the first 40 minutes.  But Wolves C Hunter Bailes scored early in the third period, and C Warren Marlow put the game on ice with another tally in the closing minutes, dooming the Igloos to another 2-0 loss.  On Saturday, they had another shot at Dakota, and were eager to avenge their earlier loss.  But the Jackalopes blew things open with a three-goal third, and Mollenkamp stumped the Igloos again, notching 29 saves en route to a 5-1 rout.

The heart of Anchorage’s opening-week woes has been their inability to light the lamp.  They scored only two goals in four games; the next-worst teams (Hershey and Quebec) scored seven times.  The Igloos are generating a decent amount of offense; they’re averaging 33 shots a game, which is solidly in the middle of the pack.  And their defense remains solid; they’re allowing 28.5 shots per game, the second-fewest in the league.

Given those numbers, and their track record, it’s easy to dismiss Anchorage’s slow start as a fluke.  But this is truly uncharted territory for the boys from Alaska.  It’s the first time the Igloos have ever finished the first week without a win, and the first time they’ve ever been in sole posession of last place.  And the problems start at the top; the Igloos’ first line of LW Jerry Koons, C Jake Frost, and RW Nicklas Ericsson – multi-time champs and All-Stars all – have recorded a dismal -8 rating.

“Come on, do you really expect us to give up just because we had a bad week?” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “The puck luck hasn’t been on our side, and I fully expect that’s going to even out over the year.  That said, we expect a lot better from ourselves.  We’re accustomed to winning and competing, and we’ve got to take care of our business.  I expect that we will.”

Can Anchorage turn things around and get back to the postseason?  Can Hamilton keep up their strong start and earn the right to defend their title?  Only time will tell, but the 2020 season is off to a fascinating start.

Igloos Prepare for Change After Finals Loss

As the final seconds ticked away in the deciding Game 6 of the 2019 SHL Finals, the Anchorage Igloos hung their heads.  Playing in front of their home fans at Arctic Circle Arena, the Igloos had allowed four third-period goals to turn a 3-1 lead into a 5-3 defeat at the hands of the Hamilton Pistols.  It had been a tense, close series, with all the previous games decided by one goal and two of them going to overtime.  But the series was ending with a clunker, a shocking embarrassment for the defending champions.

In the locker room after the game, the Igloos sat quietly and contemplated an uncertain future.  Ten of the twenty players on Anchorage’s roster are pending free agents, and salary-cap constraints mean that several of them won’t be back.  The roster is likely to look a lot different next season.

“This definitely isn’t the ending we wanted,” said C Jake Frost.  “Especially knowing that this is the last ride for some of our guys, that’s tough.”

LW Les Collins, one of those free-agents-to-be, shared Frost’s sense of disappointment.  “There’s a definite sense of unfinished business here,” Collins said.  “Ending like this, it’s shocking.  But I want to come back and help us get back on top next season.”

Some of the Igloos acknowledged that the balance of power was shifting within the league.  For years, Anchorage and the Michigan Gray Wolves were the unquestioned class of the SHL.  Recently, though, the Igloos and Wolves have been challenged within their division by the Seattle Sailors (who made the playoffs for the first time this season) and Saskatchewan Shockers, as well as by the Pistols and other teams in the rising East.

“For so long, we’ve been the favorites,” said LW Jerry Koons.  “But now, there are other teams just as good as us.  We can’t take it for granted anymore that we’ll be the best.  The Pistols are a really good, really tough club.  I don’t think this is the last time we’ll be facing them in the Finals.”

Coach Sam Castor struggled to reckon with his team’s collapse in Game 6.  “This series was so close for so much of the way,” Castor said.  “A couple bounces here or there and it’s a totally different conversation.  But for us to fall apart like that in a must-win game, especially on home ice… that’s not like us at all.  But Hamilton won this series, no question about it.  They deserve to be the champions.  For us, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”

Asked whether the team had lost its hunger for victory after its previous wins, Castor demurred.  “I don’t think that’s true at all,” said Castor.  “I didn’t see anyone here resting on their laurels.  We came up against a very good team, and they came through when it counted.”

While some of the Igloos struggled with the outcome and contemplating the next chapter, co-owner Leslie Mills took a philosophical approach.  “We gave it our all, and that’s all that you can ask,” she said.

2019 SHL Finals – Game 5

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2, HAMILTON PISTOLS 1

(Hamilton leads, 3-2)

After yesterday’s 3-2 loss, the Anchorage Igloos found themselves just one game away from defeat in the SHL Finals, facing a must-win Game 5 in enemy territory.  But the Igloos didn’t get to be two-time SHL champions without learning to overcome adversity.  So before the game, coach Sam Castor delivered a simple message to his players: “You can’t lose this one,” Castor said.  “So don’t.”

The Igloos heeded their coach’s words, seizing the lead early and hanging on for a 2-1 win over the Hamilton Pistols, keeping their Vandy hopes alive.

“We knew we weren’t going down without a fight,” said C Jake Frost.  “We’re too good a team to lose in five, so we weren’t about to let that happen.”

In Game 4, Anchorage allowed Hamilton to get out to a 3-0 lead before mounting a rally that wound up falling short.  With that in mind, the Igloos were determined to score first this time.  “If you get the first goal, especially if you get it early, you can dictate the terms of the game,” said D Ted Keefe.  “And that’s what we wanted to do.”

The boys in baby blue pulled that off a little over three minutes into the game when C Florian Theroux, who was scratched from Game 4 due to illness, deflected a shot from Keefe over the catching glove of Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen.

“This was a happy day for me,” said Theroux.  “Yesterday, I was throwing up my guts.  Today, I was a hero.”

Anchorage may have struck first, but their advantage was short-lived.  Less than two minutes after taking the lead, the Igloos went a man down when D Dave Frederick received a minor for holding the stick.  On the ensuing power play, D Albie Glasco tied it up on a severe-angle shot that banked off the shoulder of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington.

“I was just trying to see if I could get a juicy rebound,” Glasco said.  “I didn’t think there was any chance it was going to go in.”

The Igloos were eager to retake the lead before the end of the first.  They did, but only by the skin of their teeth.  In the waning seconds of the periods, Anchorage carried the puck into the offensive zone.  It seemed to disappear in a mass of bodies in front of Hamilton’s net.  Finally, the puck wound up in the net, seemingly at the same time at the horn ending the period.  After review, it was determined that the puck crossed the line before the horn, giving Anchorage its sought-after lead.  The goal was credited to D Olaf Martinsson.

“Going into the locker room with the lead, that was huge,” said Frost.  “Our confidence was through the roof.”

In the second period, Anchorage borrowed a page from Hamilton’s Game 4 playbook, slowing the pace and bogging down the Pistols’ drives in the neutral zone.  It wasn’t the prettiest twenty minutes of hockey, but it was effective, as Hamilton couldn’t mount any serious scoring threats.  The Igloos missed a chance to add to their lead in the closing minutes of the period when Frost fired a shot that beat Koskinen but hit the right post.

Going into the third period, the Pistols were determined to break the Igloos’ press and turn up the pace.  “We weren’t going to let them rock us to sleep for forty minutes with a one-goal lead,” said D Raymond Smyth.

The Pistols succeeded in generating some offensive pressure with more aggressive breakouts and long passes designed to break the Anchorage neutral-zone trap.  But they ran into one big problem: Worthington.  The Anchorage goalie was at his best, his razor-sharp reflexes anticipating the Pistols’ every move.  He gobbled up one puck after another, snapping them out of the air with his glove or smothering them beneath his pads.

Hamilton’s best chance came in the middle of the period, when Igloos D Willy Calligan was sent off for slashing.  The Pistols got into their power-play setup, and LW Steven Alexander wound up for a slapshot.  Instead of shooting, he fired a pass to RW Claude Lafayette, catching Worthington out of position.  Lafayette shot at what he thought was a wide-open net… only for the Igloos netminder to come flying over and deflect the shot with his stick.

“I have no idea how he got over so fast,” said Lafayette.  “He must have a time machine.”

The Pistols had a couple more quality chances after that, but Worthington held his ground and preserved the win.  The series now shifts back to Arctic Circle Arena in Anchorage, where the champs need to win both games to defend their title. “We’ll have our fans and we have the experience,” said Frost.  “I like our chances.”

Alexander, for his part, seems unconcerned about the shift in venue.  “We already beat them once in their barn,” the feisty winger said.  “We can do it again.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 5”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 4

HAMILTON PISTOLS 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

(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.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 4”