(Anchorage leads, 1-0)
If Game 1 sets the tone for the 2019 SHL Finals, fans are in for a treat. The Anchorage Igloos and Hamilton Pistols combined to give fans a fast-paced, highly-skilled, closely-contested thrill ride. The game was so closely contested, in fact, that it couldn’t be resolved in regulation. But in the end, C Jake Frost and the Igloos sent the fans at Arctic Circle Arena home happy with a 3-2 overtime win.
“This was a hockey master class,” said Frost. “Both teams were really on their toes and playing at a really, really high level. This series is gonna be lit.”
The energy on both sides was palpable even before the game started. As the national anthems played, players on both teams bounced up and down on their skates, like bulls waiting for the gate to open. It was little surprise that the Pistols, making their first Finals appearance, would be so fired up. But the champion Igloos were just as hyped.
That energy expressed itself in a frenetic first period. No one scored in the first, but not for a lack of trying: the teams combined to unleash 33 shots in the period, with Anchorage taking 20 of them. Igloos coach Sam Castor felt that the action was a little too frenzied, and cautioned his team between periods to moderate their pace a bit.
“I know our guys were trying to take the early lead and make a statement,” Castor said, “but the game was turning into a track meet, and we were flinging shots at the net as soon as we got the puck into their zone. I told them to be a little more deliberate and make our shots count.”
The first-period sugar high wore off in the second, and the game settled into a still-swift but reasonable tempo. It didn’t take the Igloos long to get their much-desired lead, as LW Les Collins scored on a slapshot from the slot just over a minute into the frame.
“I saw just enough daylight for the shot, so I took it,” said Collins.
A couple minutes afterward, though, Collins headed to the sin bin on a high-sticking call. Hamilton LW Steven Alexander wasted no time banging home a slapper of his own to tie the score.
“We know that if we can get the puck on Alex’s stick on the PP, good things will happen,” said C Calvin Frye.
The tie lasted barely more than 90 seconds before rookie Igloos LW Jean Pierre Fleury redirected a shot over the right pad of Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen to give the home team a 2-1 lead. The champs’ confidence only grew as they killed off three additional penalties in the period. The Igloos adjusted their penalty-kill approach to overload toward Alexander, and the Pistols were unable to make them pay.
After two periods, the momentum seemed firmly in Anchorage’s corner, as they held onto their one-goal lead. But less than a minute into the frame, Collins was whistled for another penalty, this time for cross-checking. On the ensuing faceoff, Hamilton fed the puck to Alexander, as expected. But the star winger faked a shot, then slung a pass to D Clayton Risch, who fired it to fellow blueliner Hercules Mulligan. Mulligan then fired the shot past Igloos netminder Ty Worthington, who never seemed to see it. Tie game.
Collins, frustrated at taking the penalties that allowed Hamilton to score both their goals, was now fiercely determined to make up for it with another goal of his own. He got a chance midway through the period, when Koskinen bit on a fake slapper from C Nile Bernard, and Collins found himself with the puck and a yawning net. Unfortunately, he was so wound up that he fired the shot high over the crossbar. Collins then skated back to the bench and smashed his stick to bits, a rare display of emotion for the reserved forward.
The third period featured chances for both teams, but both Koskinen and Worthington made sensational stops to keep things deadlocked through the end of regulation.
Going into overtime, the Igloos were determined to take the win. “We weren’t about to let [the Pistols] get the jump on us on our ice,” said Frost.
In the extra session, Anchorage was able to control the play far better than they had in regulation. They repeatedly denied Hamilton opportunities to set up on offense, and kept most of the action in the other end. Finally, a bit over two minutes in, Frost and LW Jerry Koons broke out on a 2-on-1, which Koons finished by going top-shelf over Koskinen’s right shoulder.
“Winning the first one, that’s big for us,” said Koons. “But this is going to be a long series, and we’re going to have to stay sharp. That’s a talented bunch on the other side, that’s for sure.”
Pistols coach Keith Shields was encouraged by his team’s performance, loss notwithstanding. “We showed that we can go toe to toe with those guys,” Shields said. “The game could have gone either way. I believe we sent them a message that we need to be taken seriously.”