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.