Igloos Ponder Future After Difficult Finals Loss

The Anchorage Igloos have been the SHL’s standard of excellence since the league’s beginning.  They’ve been a great regular-season team, and they’ve been even better in the playoffs; they’ve been to the SHL Finals five times in six seasons.  They’ve had some big wins (championships in 2015 and 2018), and they’ve had some tough losses (like their 2017 Finals loss to the Hershey Bliss).

One thing had never happened to the Igloos before: they’d never been decisively outplayed in a postseason series.  That is, until now, when the Hamilton Pistols won their second straight Vandy in a five-game series in which they were clearly the superior team.

“This is different for us,” said C Jake Frost.  “We’ve lost before, but [the losses] were always close.  Even last year, the puck bounces different a couple times, and maybe that goes our way.  But this year, [the Pistols] just flat-out beat us.  They were the better team in this series.  We’re not used to that.”

Coach Sam Castor echoed Frost’s assessment.  “Coming into the Finals, after the way we knocked out Portland, we were feeling pretty confident,” the coach noted.  “We were hot, and we felt like we were poised for the win.  But Hamilton just took control of those games, and we couldn’t adjust.  That’s never happened to us before.”

Just like last year, the Igloos face some difficult contract decisions in the offseason.  The team is always right up against the salary cap, and they’ve got several players who need new contracts, led by D Ted Keefe, C Tom Hoffman, and winger Waldo Miranda.  It’s likely that the team will be saying goodbye to at least one or two key contributors by next season.

“We’re a tight-knit group that’s been through a lot together, and it’s hard to think about not being part of that anymore,” said Keefe, who directed his agent to halt extension talks in midseason to avoid the off-ice distraction.  “But change is part of life.  We’ll have to see what happens.”

In addition to the offseason roster shuffle, the Igloos face a large question: how much longer can their dynasty last?  It’s reasonable to argue that Hamilton, with consecutive championships, is now the SHL’s standard of excellence.  But Anchorage’s core is aging, there are rising powers in the West as well.  The Portland Bluebacks, who finished first in the regular season before suffering their playoff upset, should be as strong as ever.  The Saskatchewan Shockers have been on a steady upward climb, and the Kansas City Smoke have improved as well.  Even the Dakota Jackalopes, likely playing in a new city with a larger payroll, could be a threat.  Anchorage isn’t even guaranteed to make the playoffs next season.

“We’re not handing over our crown until someone takes it from us,” said LW Jerry Koons.  “But yeah, the division isn’t going to be a cakewalk, and we’ll need to be ready for that.”

Koons has a point; It would be foolhardy to count out a team with the Igloos’ talent and experience.  But it would also be myopic to assume that they will remain a Finals fixture forever.

“This team has some good runs left in them, I’m confident of that,” said Castor.  “It’s just going to be more of a fight.  But we’ve got that fight.”

2020 SHL Finals – Game 5

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1

(Hamilton wins series, 4-1)

As the Hamilton Pistols prepared for a potential Finals-clinching Game 5, LW Steven Alexander stood in the middle of the visiting locker room and made a brief but powerful statement.

“This ends tonight,” said Alexander of the series.  “When we go back to Hamilton, I don’t want to play more hockey.  I want to be able to go party and celebrate with our friends.  Who’s with me?”

The other Pistols shouted their assent.  Then they went out and dominated the Anchorage Igloos, cruising to a 5-1 win and becoming the first team in SHL history to win back-to-back championships.

“Double Vandys, baby!” crowed Alexander after the game.  “We’ve started a revolution in the SHL.  The old empires are falling, and now it’s our time!”

The first period was competitive, as the Igloos – fighting for their playoff lives – came out fast.  They outshot Hamilton 16-7 in the opening stanza.  But thanks to Lasse Koskinen‘s strong goaltending and a couple of quality shots, the Pistols came away with a lead after 20 minutes.

The Igloos took the first six shots of the game, but couldn’t get any of them behind Koskinen.  When the Pistols finally got some offensive zone time about five minutes in, it didn’t take RW Claude Lafayette long to score the game’s first goal with a fierce snipe that snuck in between Igloos goalie Ty Worthington‘s left arm and torso.

That initial lead was short-lived; Igloos C Jens Bunyakin scored the equalizer just 30 seconds later.  But the Pistols didn’t let that slow them down.  Later in the period, Anchorage was setting up for another extended offensive shift when Pistols D Albie Glasco managed to poke-check the puck away from Igloos LW Jerry Koons and over the blue line.  That set up a Hamilton jailbreak, which ended with a gorgeous drop pass to C Calvin Frye, who stashed it in the upper left corner of the net to make it a 2-1 game.

“Even though [the Igloos] got most of the shots in the first, we still came out ahead,” said Frye.  “We felt confident at that point that we were going to take it.”

Over the final 40 minutes, the Pistols slowly squeezed the life out of both the Igloos offense and the fans at Arctic Circle Arena as they steadily added to their lead.  Anchorage had as many shots in the first as they did over the rest of the game.

“I have to hand it to them,” said Igloos C Jake Frost of his victorious opponent.  “They could have tried to trap and sit on their lead, but they didn’t.  They really took it to us.”

Hamilton added two more goals in the second period, one early in the period on a slapshot by D Clayton Risch, and another late in the period on a tip-in at the doorstep by C J.C. Marais.

Alexander, naturally, put the capper on things early in the third with a blast from his favorite spot at the edge of the left faceoff circle.  The feisty winger dropped his stick and thrust his arms in the air, then skated over to the waiting embrace of his teammates.  As the Pistols celebrated, their whoops and hollers echoed in the rafter of the painfully quiet arena.

After Alexander’s score, it was just a matter of letting the time wind off the clock.  As the minutes ticked away, several Igloos stars on the bench covered their heads with towels, either to hide their emotions or so they didn’t have to watch.  Others sat, staring blankly into the distance as their championship hopes withered away.

When the final horn sounded, though, the Igloos raised their sticks in the air in tribute to their fans.  And the crowd gave their fallen heroes a standing ovation.  They even saved some applause for the winning Pistols, who acknowledged the tribute before heading down to the locker room to celebrate.

The post-game scene was a boisterous, jubilant celebration.  The Pistols smoked cigars and poured champagne over themselves and each other.  Players swayed arm-in-arm, singing old drinking songs off key in between swigs of beer and whiskey.

“I can’t think of a group of guys I’d rather go to war with,” crowed Alexander.  “These are my friends, my teammates, my comrades in arms.  Next year, let’s go for a three-peat!”

Coach Keith Shields, tie askew and suit jacket missing, celebrated his players.  “In victory, the glory always goes to God,” said Shields, “but these boys worked so hard for this all season, and they deserve this celebration.  It’s been my honor and privilege to share it with them!”

In the home locker room, Igloos coach Sam Castor paid tribute to the champions.  “They just outplayed us,” Castor said.  “It’s not often that I have to say that, but it’s true.  It was a good, clean. well-played series, but they outplayed us. and they deserved the Vandy.  It’s a tough pill for us to swallow, but it gives us a little extra fuel for next season.”

Continue reading “2020 SHL Finals – Game 5”

2020 SHL Finals – Game 4

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 6, HAMILTON PISTOLS 4

(Hamilton leads series, 3-1)

For the Anchorage Igloos, there was only one goal in today’s Game 4: don’t get swept.  After the Hamilton Pistols won the first three games of the SHL Finals, the Igloos were on the brink of that ignominious end, and they were determined not to let that happen.  Not in front of their own fans at Arctic Circle Arena.  For a proud veteran team, the thought of such a humiliation was too much to bear.  And they didn’t let it happen, scoring four times in the second period on the way to a 6-4 win.

“This is the statement we’ve been looking for all series,” said C Jake Frost.

When the puck dropped to open the second, the game was tied 1-1 and the outcome was far from certain.  Igloos C Tom Hoffman, skating on the top line in a shake-up move by coach Sam Castor, won the faceoff and slid the puck to LW Jerry Koons.  Koons raced up the ice and passed it back to Hoffman, who began to loop behind the net, only to fire it just before he crossed the goal line and put it in to give the Igloos the lead.

Five minutes later, RW Nicklas Ericsson got behind the Hamilton defense and received a perfect pass from D Sebastian Pomfret.  Ericsson broke in alone on the net, dangled a bit, then went high to put the Igloos up by two.

“Nick is such a brilliant passer and facilitator that it’s easy to overlook his scoring talent,” said Castor.  “Just a remarkable player.”

Unlike in previous games, Anchorage managed to keep the Pistols from seizing the momentum.  When D Russ Klemmer scored to put Hamilton back within one less than a minute later, the Igloos kept the pressure on.  It was Frost who crashed the net and collected the loose puck and jammed it in to restore Anchorage’s two-goal lead.  When Pistols C Marco Venezio cut the deficit in half again, the Igloos needed just nine seconds for Koons to score on a slapshot from the slot.

Early in the third period, the Pistols threatened one more time when D Clayton Risch scored on a fluky looper of a shot that grazed the crossbar and went in.  This time, Anchorage’s seldom-used third line pitched in, as RW Jean Pierre Fleury juked his defender with a beautiful toe drag and then fired a shot about Hamilton goalie Lasse Koskinen‘s glove for his second goal of the game.

Any hope for a Pistols comeback in the rest of the game was snuffed out by a parade of penalties.  Hamilton went to the box three times in the third period, preventing them from establishing any sort of rhythm or sustained pressure.  As the final horn sounded, the Igloos gathered in a knot and traded head bumps while the crowd cheered with relief.

So the Igloos managed to prevent the sweep.  Their next goal: a win in Game 5 to keep Hamilton from celebrating on Anchorage’s ice.  “I said yesterday that we’re taking these one at a time,” said Castor.  “We got this one, and now we need to come out tomorrow and get the next one.”

The Pistols, meanwhile, remained confident that they will ultimately prevail.  “We never expected a sweep,” said coach Keith Shields.  “Anchorage is too good and talented a team to go down without a fight.  But if we keep playing the way we’ve been playing, we’ll be in good shape.”

Continue reading “2020 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2020 SHL Finals – Game 2

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3

(Hamilton leads series, 2-0)

After dropping the opener of the SHL Finals, the Anchorage Igloos came into today’s Game 2 looking to start strong, cruise to victory, and even the series.  They got the strong start down pat; five minutes into the game, they led 3-1.  But then the spent the remaining 55 minutes watching the Hamilton Pistols slowly but surely tilt the ice in their direction, coming from behind to claim a 5-3 win and a 2-0 series lead.

“This was a tough one for us to take,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “We felt like we should have had this one, and we let it get away.”

The beginning of this game, just like Game 1, was wide open and full of scoring.  D Olaf Martinsson got Anchorage on the board just seven seconds in, with an awkward knuckling shot that eluded Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen.  At the 42-second mark, C Calvin Frye banked one in off the crossbar to tie it.  And at 1:15, Igloos D Ted Keefe intercepted a pass and found RW Broni Zlotkin, who fired it above Koskinen’s catching glove to take a 2-1 lead.

“I don’t know what it is about these games,” said Frye.  “It’s like no one’s allowed to play D until a couple minutes into it.”

Three and a half minutes after Zhlotkin’s tally, RW Nicklas Ericsson finished an odd-man rush with a beautiful deke that got Koskinen to bite, then deposited the puck in the vacant upper-right corner of the net to give Anchorage a two-goal lead.  With the game getting out of control, Pistols LW Steven Alexander called his team out and urged them to turn the tide.

“Alex was basically screaming at us that we needed to wake up,” said Frye.  “He said, ‘We can just back in this, turn things around and bury these guys.’  And that got us going.”

Fittingly, Alexander got the rally started himself.  D Raymond Smyth hit him with a perfect pass in the neutral zone, and Alexander barreled up the ice at top speed.  He pulled off a gorgeous toe drag to shake D Tony Citrone, crashed in toward the net, and went high for the score.  Alexander then jumped into the boards and signaled to his teammates.

“He pointed and kind of waved us on like, ‘Okay, I got us started, now it’s your turn,'” said Frye.  “Alex did what he needed to light the fire under us.”

After Alexander’s goal, the game shifted in Hamilton’s favor.  For one thing, they tightened up their shoddy defense.  Anchorage had 17 shots in the first period; they had 21 in the next two periods combined.  And as the Igloos found their game stalling, the Pistols found theirs warming up.

In the second period, D Hercules Mulligan tied the game with a blast from the top of the offensive zone.  The goal was originally credited to RW Ben Summers, who was believed to have tipped it, but replays showed that the puck just took a strange bounce off the ice on its way into the net.

In the first minute of the third period, RW Claude Lafayette gave Hamilton its first lead of the game on a slapshot that leaked through Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s pads and trickled over the goal line before he could stop it.  And in the middle of the third period, Alexander put a capper on the night.  He received the puck in the left faceoff circle, his favorite spot, and wound up for his trademark slapper.  Worthington readied himself to block it.  But instead of shooting, Alexander slapped a pass to Lafayette, who put it into the yawning net for an insurance tally.

Igloos coach Sam Castor swatted down a question about whether he would go to backup Curt Freeze in net after Worthington struggled in each of the first two games.  “Not even a consideration; this is Ty’s series unless he gets hurt,” said Castor.  “Has he had a couple of rough games?  Yes.  But is that on him?  No. it’s not.  Our defense has left him out to dry far too often, and that needs to change in a hurry.”

Castor also criticized his team’s power play, which is 0-for-7 so far in the series.  “We had four today, and didn’t do a thing with them,” the coach noted.  “If we convert on even one of those, it’s a different game.”

As the series shifts to Anchorage for the next three games, the Igloos know they need to raise their game if they’re going to get back into it.  “We need to control the flow of the game,” said Koons.  “We did that against Portland, but so far this series, Hamilton has dictated the game.  If we keep playing back on our heels, this is going to be a short series.  We need to be on our toes instead.”

Continue reading “2020 SHL Finals – Game 2”