2020 SHL Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the Western Division in the 2020 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held on Wednesday at Kansas City’s Heartland Telecom Center, was announced today by coach Sam Castor.  The selections were as follows:

LW: Rod “Money” Argent, Portland.  The Bluebacks are hot, and they’re quickly building a strong and enthusiastic fan base.  The team’s fans showed their love in the All-Star voting, as they rivaled Hamilton in terms of the largest turnout.  Thanks to the strong support from the Rose City, the Bluebacks wound up with three starting slots.  Among those is Argent, who will appear in the All-Star game for the first time in his career.  The winger is fifth in the league in goals with 18, and has Portland’s second-highest point total with 34.  Argent is a strong two-way player, as reflected by the fact that he leads all Bluebacks forwards in blocks with 27.

D: Ted Keefe, Anchorage.  This marks the first time that a non-Michigan defenseman made the West’s starting lineup.  The strong support of Igloos fans allowed Keefe to finish with the most votes among defensemen.  Although this is Keefe’s first All-Star start, it is the third time that he’ll make an appearance in the game.   Keefe is having a strong year offensively; he is tied for the lead among SHL defenseman in goals with 11.  But it’s defense that’s his primary calling card.  Any unlucky opponent that’s been the victim of his punishing hits can attest to that; his 50 blocks on the season tell the same story.

C: Eddie Costello, Portland.  Last year, the veteran center was traded to Hamilton at the deadline, and went on to play a leading role as the Pistols won their first Vandy.  In the offseason, he signed with Portland, and has led the team to its spot atop the standings at the midway mark.  Those fans returned the favor by making Costello the top overall vote-getter in the West.  (It’s likely that he got support from his former fans in Washington and Hamilton as well.)  Costello’s 36 points are tops on his new team, while his 25 assists land him among the SHL’s top ten.  He’s no slouch defensively, either, with 26 blocks so far this season.

D: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan.  Kronstein continues his streak of All-Star starts, finishing ahead of teammates “Mad Max” Madison (a three-time starter) and Brooks Zabielski, as well as Portland’s Benny Lambert.  This comes as no surprise, in spite of the Wolves’ disappointing first half; Kronstein has started in every All-Star Game to date.  Though Michigan is not performing up to its usual standards, the German-born blueliner continues to produce on both ends, leading the team’s defensive corps with 22 points (including 10 goals, second among Wolves defensemen) and tied for the lead with 59 blocks.

RW: Vince Mango, Portland.  The colorful, high-scoring Mango secures his third All-Star berth and his second start, finishing roughly 1,500 votes ahead of Anchorage’s Nicklas Ericsson.  (It’s sweet payback for Mango; last season, Ericsson nosed him out of a starting slot by less than 800 votes.)  Mango is often regarded around the league as a one-dimensional scorer.  While his 15 goals does place him among the SHL’s top ten, Mango’s game has matured as he and the team have grown.  He has recorded 11 assists so far on the year, and he has even blocked 17 shots.  “Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day when Vince blocked a shot on purpose,” said Castor.  “He’d be afraid of mussing his hair.  But he’s clearly changed, and good for him.”

 

Second Line

LW: Jerry Koons, Anchorage.  Last year’s starter makes it this year on the second line, one of four Igloos chosen for the team by their coach.  Koons has appeared in every All-Star Game so far and has started twice.  Among all Western left-wingers, Koons is the leader in both points (with 37) and assists (with 25).  “I’m sure some people will say I’m a big homer because there are so many of our guys on the team,” said Castor.  “But you tell me which guy didn’t deserve to go.  No question about it that Jerry deserves to be there.”

D: Wyatt Barnes, Saskatchewan.  Barnes, who makes his fourth trip to the All-Star game, is the Shockers’ only representative at the All-Star game this season.  But he is no charity pick; arguably, he is the SHL’s best defenseman so far this half on both ends of the ice.  Only teammate Chris Oflyng has more points among the West’s blueliners than Barnes’ 29.  And no one in the league, in either division or at any position, has more blocks that he does, just one shy of the century mark.  “One of these days, the fans are going to wake up and realize that Barnesy should be starting in this thing,” said Oflyng.

C: Hunter Bailes, Michigan.  In spite of the Wolves’ underperformance so far this season, Castor couldn’t overlook Bailes’ solid campaign for Anchorage’s longtime rival.  Bailes is the Michigan leader in goals (with 14) and points (with 29), and his +14 rating places him within the league’s top ten.  Somewhat surprisingly for one of the league’s consistent stars, this is the first time that Bailes will be appearing in the midseason contest.  He was named to the team in 2017, but he missed the game due to injury; teammate Warren Marlow skated in his place.

D: Benny Lambert, Portland.  The Bluebacks aren’t solely represented by players who were voted in by their enthusiastic fans; Lambert is one of two Portland players chosen by Castor to accompany their starting colleagues.  This is not Lambert’s first All-Star appearance; he was Seattle’s lone representative back in the 2017 contest.  Lambert’s 71 blocks are tops on the Bluebacks, and his 16 assists are tied for second on the team among blueliners.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage.  After Ericsson narrowly lost the starting spot to Mango, there was little doubt that Castor would add his top-line right winger to the squad.  Ericsson is is one of five Western players who has been an All-Star every year.  He’s justifiably renowned for his skills as a passer, and he remains as sharp as ever: he’s tied for second in the league in assists with 31.  Somewhat more surprisingly, he also has more points than anyone else in the West, with 40.

 

Third Line

LW: “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, Dakota.  Airston, the Jackalopes’ only representative, appears in his third All-Star game.  The fan-favorite winger has been named in rumor after rumor over the last couple of seasons, always supposedly on the verge of being dealt for financial reasons, but he remains in Dakota for the time being, continuing to produce as usual.  Airston leads the Jackalopes in goals with 12, and is tied for the team lead in assists with 15.  “You have to tune all that stuff out and just play your game,” said Airston.  “I think I’ve done a good job with that.”

D: Gary Hermine, Kansas City.  In a surprising pick, Castor tabbed the 22-year-old Hermine as a first-time All-Star.  The Western coach acknowledged that he gave Hermine the nod in part to give the KC crowd another Smoke player to cheer for.  “The fans deserve to see a couple of their own,” Castor said.  But Hermine is also on the team on merit; he’s put together a strong first half with 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) and 41 blocks.

C: Tom Hoffman, Anchorage.  This pick by Castor definitely raised eyebrows around the league.  How could the coach pass over his own top-line center, Jake Frost?  How could the star who has started each previous All-Star contest miss the cut entirely?  According to Castor, the move came at Frost’s request.  “He told me, ‘Hoff’s outplaying me so far.  He deserves to go, not me,” said the coach.  “Of course, Frosty might have just wanted a few days off for a change.”  When the Igloos acquired Hoffman from New York in the offseason, the move was regarded as a cheap flyer at a position of need.  To the degree that fans knew Hoffman at all, it was as a draft bust who hadn’t lived up to his potential.  But he’s undergone a career revival in baby.  He has indeed produced more goals (12) and assists (16) than Frost so far on the year.  In addition, he leads the team in plus-minus with a +14 rating.

D: Sebastian Pomfret, Anchorage.  This spot originally belonged to Chris Oflyng of Saskatchewan, but the Shockers blueliner suffered an injury a couple games before the break.  To replace Oflyng, Castor went with a familiar face, tapping his own man Pomfret.  It’s the second straight All-Star appearance for the 25-year-old.  Pomfret is on track for a career-best season, putting up 19 points (5 goals, 14 assists) and blocking 61 shots to go with his +7 rating.

RW: Bengt Frederiksson, Kansas City.  The Swedish winger was the #1 pick in the draft, and he has completely lived up to the hype so far amid an otherwise forgettable year for the host city.  His 15 goals puts him among the league’s top ten and atop all rookies.  Similarly, his 36 points places him on the SHL leaderboard; no other freshman is within a dozen points of him.  “I am glad that I will have a chance to enjoy this honor among our fans,” said Frederiksson.

 

Goalies

Ty Worthington, Anchorage.  For the first time, Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist is not the Western starter.  And it’s not a fluke driven by the voters; in fact, Worthington has outplayed the mighty Bear so far this season.  His 2.11 GAA is third in the SHL, and his .933 save percentage leads the league.  His underlying numbers belie a 13-10-1 record, which speaks more to a lack of offensive support than anything else.  “It’s nice to see Ty get the top slot for a change,” said Castor.  “He’s earned it.”

Jesse Clarkson, Portland.  In another eyebrow-raising move, Castor elected not to pick Lundquist as Worthington’s backup.  Instead, the Western coach turned to Clarkson, making him the fifth Blueback to appear on the roster.  Clarkson was voted in as the starter of the Eastern team last season, when he played for New York.  After signing with Portland in the offseason, Clarkson rebounded from a shaky start to post his typically solid numbers.  His 16 victories lead the SHL, and he’s backing them up with a skinny 2.68 GAA and a stout .919 save percentage.

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 6

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3

(Hamilton wins, 4-2)

In the locker room before the third period of today’s Game 6, Hamilton Pistols coach Keith Shields looked for the right words to inspire his struggling team.  After forty minutes of play, the defending champions Anchorage Igloos led the Pistols 3-1.  The Igloos were just a period away from erasing Hamilton’s 3-1 series lead in the SHL Finals, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Anchorage tomorrow.  The momentum was firmly on the side of the champs, and the Pistols’ hopes for the Vandy were rapidly slipping away.

“I knew I didn’t want it to go to seven,” said Shields.  “I knew our best chance to win was today, even having to come from behind.”

And so the coach, who is a devout Christian, talked to his players about the story of David and Goliath.  “The Israelites were saved because one man was brave enough to take on this giant on the other side,” the coach said.  “And with God’s strength behind him, David killed Goliath.  Who among you is brave enough to defeat our enemy?  If that’s you, step forward like David did.”

One by one, the Pistols stepped forward.  Then they went out and staged the biggest comeback in Finals history, scoring four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 win and clinch their first-ever SHL title.

The first player to answer Shields’ challenge was, unsurprisingly, LW Steven Alexander.  The winger has been Hamilton’s unquestioned leader since the beginning, a brave and ambitious player who discovered a new level to his game after tying the knot in mid-season.  He got the team going in the right direction right from the opening faceoff of the third, marching down the ice and scoring just 16 seconds into the frame.

“Coach Shields had gotten us fired up with his speech, but someone needed to get our comeback started,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “And of course it was Alex.  That guy knows no fear.”

Alexander got things rolling, but Hamilton needed another hero.  Up stepped one of their oldest players.  33-year-old RW Kenny Patterson considered retiring after last season, before signing an extension with the Pistols to fill a hole on the second line.  And when his team needed him most today, he came through with the tying and (ultimately) winning goals.

The tying tally came on a power play, as Igloos D Tony Citrone was penalized for tripping.  Patterson stationed himself in front of the Anchorage net, absorbing hacks and slashes from defenders.  And when D Raymond Smyth fired a shot toward the net, Patterson deflected it just beyond the reach of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington and just under the crossbar.

The go-ahead goal came on a similar tip play on 5-on-5 just over two minutes after the previous one.  This time, it was D Clayton Risch firing from the blue line while Patterson stood in the slot.  The puck bounced off Patterson’s stick and knuckled past a stunned Worthington.  The Igloos protested, arguing that Patterson’s stick had been above the crossbar when it struck the puck.  Upon review, though, it was deemed a good goal.  The fans at Arctic Circle Arena booed, while the Igloos sagged on the bench.

“They couldn’t believe it,” Patterson said.  “They’d been so sure they had this one in the bag, and then we came back and they didn’t know what to do.”

RW Claude Lafayette has been a close friend of Alexander’s since childhood and shares a line with the star.  So it only seems fitting that he gave Hamilton an insurance goal with less than seven minutes left, finishing off an odd-man rush that Alexander started.  The old friends wrapped each other in an embrace and screamed in celebration, while the crowd fell into a stunned silence.

The Igloos tried to mount a rally, but the fired-up Pistols overwhelmed them.  Anchorage’s final push was thwarted when LW Jerry Koons took an ill-timed tripping penalty with three minutes remaining.  A frustrated Koons slammed his stick against the glass and buried his head in his hands as he sat in the sin bin.

“I feel like I cost us the championship,” said Koons.  “I took a stupid, stupid penalty at the worst possible time.”

As the final horn sounded, the Pistols raced toward their blue line to celebrate.  They pounded each other on the back and shouted, “We won, we won, we won!  We won!”  When Commissioner Perry Mitchell presented them with the Vandy, Alexander took a long lap around the ice, tears streaming down his cheeks as he contemplated the team’s accomplishment.

“I have lived to see our glory!” said Alexander in the locker room, as his teammates poured beer and champagne over his head.  “It’s been an amazing year for me, getting married and winning the title, and this is a new high.  When our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”

Shields ran around the locker room, hugging his players and doing his best to dodge the beer showers.  “Goliath is dead!” shouted the coach. “With our faith and our bravery, we stood up against our mightiest opponent and we took him down.  All hail the heroes!”

A somber Sam Castor, coach of the Igloos, congratulated the victorious Pistols.  “Make no mistake, they earned this title,” said Castor.  “It was a hard-fought series, but they were the better team in the end.  They deserve this.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 6”

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”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 1

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3, HAMILTON PISTOLS 2 (OVERTIME)

(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.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 1”