2021 SHL Finals – Game 3

HAMILTON PISTOLS 2, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1

(Hamilton leads series, 2-1)

Lasse Koskinen told us this was coming.  In Game 2, the Hamilton Pistols goalie returned from an injury he suffered during the divisional playoff against Boston but struggled badly after the first period, surrendering five goals.

After the game, reporters asked him if he was still dealing with lingering effects from the injury.  Koskinen denied it, saying that he’d just had a bad game.  “If I play better next game, perhaps then you will believe it,” he said.

In tonight’s Game 3, the Finnish-born netminder played one of the best games of his career.  He showed no signs of injury, moving comfortably all around the crease and making 39 saves, including several acrobatic stops.  Thanks to Koskinen’s brilliance in net, the Pistols stole a game on the road, 2-1, against an Anchorage Igloos team that clearly outplayed them for most of the contest.

“Seeing the game happen live, I couldn’t understand how we lost,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “Then I looked at the stat sheet, and I still couldn’t understand it.  But when you’ve got a hot goalie, anything is possible.  And Koskinen was on fire tonight.  I have to tip my hat to him.”

Anchorage looked like a team possessed throughout this contest.  They were buzzing on offense, outshooting Hamilton 40 to 27.  They were just as engaged on defense, blocking an amazing 21 shots compared to just 9 for the Pistols.  But in spite of their dominance, they kept running into a roadblock in the form of Koskinen.

“The way [Koskinen] was stretching out his arms and legs to makes saves, he looked like Inspector Gadget,” said Igloos C Jake Frost, who was held scoreless despite taking 10 shots in the game.  “I couldn’t get it under, over, around, or through him.  It was one of the best performances I’d ever seen.”

The home team came out of the locker room ready to tilt the ice.  They absolutely blitzed the Pistols in the first period, outshooting them 14-5.  And yet somehow when the period was over, Anchorage trailed 1-0 thanks to a fluky goal by Pistols RW Brad Stevens that redirected a couple times before going in.

“After the way we played in the first, we should have had 2 or 3 goals for sure,” said LW Jerry Koons.  “But we just couldn’t solve Koskinen.”

Koskinen made several impressive saves during that first-period barrage, but two in particular stood out.  One came about the midway point of the period, when Igloos C Tom Hoffman got loose on a breakaway and fired a shot ticketed for the upper-right corner of the net, only to be foiled by a great glove save from Koskinen.  A few minutes later, during an extended offensive zone shift, Frost got the puck on his stick with a wide-open net.  But Koskinen managed to flick his right pad out just in time to smother Frost’s bid.

“I already had my arms halfway in the air because I was sure it was in,” said Frost.  “When I realized it wasn’t, I couldn’t believe it.”

In the second period, the Igloos’ frustration mounted as Koskinen continued to stonewall them.  Meanwhile, at the 4:15 mark of the period, LW Magnus Gunnarson scored on a nifty curl and drag to make it a 2-0 game.  Gunnarson’s shot was just the second for Hamilton in the period and their seventh for the game.

Later in the period, the Igloos went on the power play when Pistols D Elvis Bodett was whistled for interference.  In the opening seconds of the man advantage, Frost saw an opening on the short side and whistled a shot toward it.  But Koskinen launched himself over to seal the post and stop the shot, leaving the Anchorage center shaking his head in frustration.

The Igloos finally got on the board with 1:11 left in the second, after Hamilton LW Kelvin Starkey committed a hooking penalty in the neutral zone.  Koons launched a rocket of a shot the Koskinen got a piece of, but couldn’t keep out of the net.

“That was a hallelujah moment for us,” said Koons.  “It was like, ‘Okay, we can actually get it past him!’”  But that was the only puck they would put behind him.

The game took a turn for the physical in the latter stages.  Pistols D Hercules Mulligan and Igloos LW Veikko Sikanen fought late in the second after Mulligan objected to a rough hit that Sikanen put on Stevens in the corner.  In the third, a scrum in front of the Anchorage net turned violent, as poking and jostling turned into face washes and flying fists.  Igloos D Tony Citrone and Pistols C Hilliard Macy received fighting majors as a result of that fracas.

The Igloos and Pistols have gotten in four fights in the last two games, and Hamilton coach Keith Shields indicated that he would ask his team to tone it down.  “We know this is a heavyweight series, but there’s a difference between being physical and being reckless,” said Shields.  “Our guys have stayed on the right side of that line so far, but the last thing I want is for us to see someone important get hurt or suspended because something boils over.  Let’s win this with goals, not fists.”

But even when the game got chippy, Koskinen’s excellence remained the major story.  Anchorage valiantly killed off some third-period penalties, including a 5-on-3 situation that lasted a minute and a half, but they couldn’t come up with the tying goal.  Koskinen wasn’t called upon to make many acrobatic saves down the stretch; instead, he stood tall in net, calmly turning the Anchorage pucks aside.

Game 4 is essentially a must-win for Anchorage.  But they can’t help but ask themselves: given how well they played in this game only to come up short, what do they need to do to get a win?

“If we play tomorrow the way we played today, we should get the win,” said Castor.  “Koskinen can’t stop them all, can he?”

Continue reading “2021 SHL Finals – Game 3”

2021 SHL Division Playoffs – Game 1

Eastern Division Series (Hamilton leads, 1-0)

HAMILTON PISTOLS 2, BOSTON BADGERS 1

There was good news for both teams in the opener to this year’s Eastern playoff.  The Boston Badgers managed to dictate the pace of the game, and they battled the two-time defending SHL champions to a draw for the majority of Game 1.  The Hamilton Pistols, however, got the win thanks to a late power-play goal off the stick of RW Waldo Miranda.

“If this game is any indication, this is going to be one heck of a series,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.

Both teams came out in top form in the first period.  It was the underdog Badgers who struck first, with D Geoff Moultrie firing a shot from just below the blue line that beat a screened Hamilton netminder Lasse Koskinen.

“That was a great way for us to start off,” said Badgers C Alain Beauchesne.  “It gave us that confidence like, ‘Yes, we belong here.’”

The lead lasted about half of the opening frame, with the teams trading fruitless power plays.  With just under eight and a half minutes to go in the period, Pistols D Raymond Smyth forced a turnover at center ice and fed C Marco Venezio, who got behind the Boston defense and beat goalie Roger Orion on the blocker side to even it up.

The second period was a defensive clinic for the Badgers, as they held the Pistols to a single shot in the period.  “For us to be able to shut down an offense like Hamilton’s for a whole period like that, that was a strong statement,” said Badgers coach Kyle Barrow.  “We really put on a clinic there.”

With Hamilton’s offense held in check, the champs relied on Koskinen to hold the fort, and he did, bailing the Pistols out with a couple of brilliant saves.  Early in the period, he denied Badgers LW Dave Yaughn from the with a tremendous glove save.  In the middle of the period, D Matt Cherner fired a laser from below the right faceoff circle; Koskinen slid across the crease and deflected the puck with his left skate.

“Koski was our MVP today,” said Pistols C Calvin Frye.  “He saved our bacon a bunch of times.”

Early in the third period, Badgers C Warren Marlow found the puck on his stick right in front of a wide-open net.  He wound up and shot, only to ping it off the crossbar.

“I really wish I could have that one back,” said Marlow.  “I got overexcited and put too much in the shot.”

The game seemed destined to go into overtime.  But at the tail end of a futile Badgers power play, a frustrated RW Levi Rudyard hauled down Pistols LW Kelvin Starkey in the neutral zone, putting the Pistols a man to the good with just under eight minutes remaining.  In the final thirty seconds of the power play, Smyth found Miranda just above the goal line, and Miranda’s severe-angle shot banked off Orion’s shoulder and into the net.

“I thought I’d sealed off the post, but I hadn’t quite,” said Orion, “and it cost me.”

The Pistols needed one more great Koskinen save off of Cherner in the waning minutes to preserve the win.

“The way we played today, we got a little lucky to get the W,” said Shields.  “If we want to take this series and get back to the Finals, we’ll need to bring it up a notch the rest of the way.”

 

EPlayoffGm1, Boston @ Hamilton, Gunpowder Armory

                   1   2   3   OT   F
Boston             1   0   0        1
Hamilton           1   0   1        2

 
Boston                SH   G   A PTS BLK PIM +/-   Hamilton              SH   G   A PTS BLK PIM +/-

Beauchesne      C      1   0   0   0   0   2   0   Mulligan        D      0   0   0   0   4   4   0
Cherner         D      3   0   0   0   1   0   0   Risch           D      3   0   0   0   1   0   0
Lunsford        RW     0   0   0   0   2   0   0   Frye            C      2   0   0   0   0   0   0
Darnholm        LW     3   0   0   0   2   0   0   Alexander       LW     1   0   0   0   1   0   0
Keefe           D      3   0   0   0   5   0   0   Miranda         RW     3   1   0   1   0   2   0
Addison         D      1   0   0   0   0   2  -1   Summers         RW     1   0   0   0   0   0  +1
Thurman         LW     1   0   0   0   0   0  -1   Gunnarson       LW     1   0   0   0   2   0  +1
Rudyard         RW     1   0   0   0   0   2  -1   Smyth           D      5   0   2   2   3   0  +1
Marlow          C      5   0   0   0   0   0  -1   Glasco          D      0   0   0   0   3   2  +1
Mortensen       D      0   0   0   0   0   0  -1   Venezio         C      1   1   0   1   1   0  +1
Moultrie        D      1   1   0   1   2   0  +1   Macy            C      1   0   0   0   0   2  -1
Yaughn          LW     3   0   1   1   1   0  +1   Hampton         D      2   0   0   0   1   0  -1
Ravenbloom      RW     1   0   0   0   1   0  +1   Bodett          D      0   0   1   1   0   0  -1
McCallan        D      0   0   1   1   2   2  +1   Starkey         F      0   0   0   0   0   0  -1
Humplik         C      1   0   0   0   1   0  +1   Stevens         RW     1   0   0   0   2   0  -1
------------------------------------------------   ------------------------------------------------
TOTALS                24   1   2   3  17   8   0   TOTALS                21   2   3   5  18  10   0

Coach: Kyle Barrow                                 Coach: Keith Shields                            

Scratches:
BOS:  Stolte, Jennings, Shivers
HAM:  Miller, Ashmont, Blackwood, Lafayette (DL)

 
Boston              SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Orion               21    19    2  0.905

Hamilton            SH    SV    G    Sv%
----------------------------------------
Koskinen            24    23    1  0.958

 

First Period
------------

GOALS:
02:02  BOS  Moultrie (Yaughn, McCallan)
11:41  HAM  Venezio (Smyth)

PENALTIES:
02:47  BOS  Beauchesne 2:00 (Clipping)
07:34  HAM  Glasco 2:00 (Hooking)
14:19  HAM  Macy 2:00 (Interference)
15:49  BOS  Addison 2:00 (Slashing)

Second Period
-------------

GOALS:
None


PENALTIES:
07:46  BOS  McCallan 2:00 (Hooking)
15:42  HAM  Mulligan 2:00 (Unsportsmanlike Conduct)

Third Period
------------

GOALS:
13:44  HAM  Miranda PP (Smyth, Bodett)

PENALTIES:
03:11  HAM  Miranda 2:00 (Tripping)
10:16  HAM  Mulligan 2:00 (Tripping)
12:11  BOS  Rudyard 2:00 (Hooking)


 
SHOTS
------
                   1   2   3   OT   F
Boston            10   8   6       24
Hamilton          13   1   7       21

SHOT ATTEMPTS: Boston 58, Hamilton 55

 
POWER PLAYS
-----------

Boston           0 for 5
Hamilton         1 for 4

 
INJURIES
--------

None

 

Western Division Series (Anchorage leads, 1-0)

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 9, MILWAUKEE GROWLERS 0

When the Anchorage Igloos announced that star C Jake Frost would miss the opening game of their division series, the underdog Milwaukee Growlers saw an opportunity to get an edge in their postseason debut.

“Might be a chance for us to steal one here,” said Growlers coach Rodney Reagle.  “That could make all the difference in a series like this.”

The Igloos had other ideas, however.  Their offense didn’t miss a beat in Frost’s absence, breaking the game wide open with a four-goal second period and keeping the hammer down on the way to a 9-0 rout that included a hat trick by C Tom Hoffman.

“Yeah, I think you could say we made a statement in this game,” deadpanned Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “Good result, good effort.”

Despite the lopsided final score, the game started off in competitive fashion, with neither team scoring in the first half of the period.  But when Growlers LW Zachary Merula went off for high-sticking, the Igloos took advantage, with LW Les Collins scoring on the ensuing power play to put Anchorage on the board.  Hoffman scored with just over two minutes left to send the Igloos to the locker room with a 2-0 lead.

There were no further scores in the opening minutes of the second period, although Anchorage was starting to tilt the ice in their direction.

The turning point came about eight minutes into the period, when Growlers D Kirby Hanlon was whistled for elbowing; it was the third penalty on Milwaukee, while Anchorage had received none.  By game’s end, the penalty edge would be 5-0 in Anchorage’s favor.  The Growlers howled in protest, and they remained furious after the game.  But it was after the Hanlon penalty that the wheels came off for Milwaukee.

“We definitely felt like [the Hanlon penalty] was a really questionable call,” said Reagle after the game.  “And any time the calls all go against one team, that raises a couple eyebrows.  But it was on us to keep our heads and play the game, and we didn’t do that.  We took ourselves out of the game.”

Hoffman scored his second goal on the ensuing power play to give the Igloos a three-goal lead.  Less than two minutes later, Collins scored his second of the game to make it 4-0.  Even though Anchorage started giving more time to their third line after that, the goals kept flowing; C Broni Zhlotkin (filling in for the injured Frost) and D Rudolf Kerasov scored before the end of the period.

Milwaukee switched goalies after the second period, with Lorne Mollenkamp replacing Buzz Carson, but it did not slow the Anchorage scoring barrage.  Hoffman completed the hat trick in the first couple minutes of the third, and Ds Laszlo Cierny and Tony Citrone also scored in the final period.  On the other end, Igloos goalie Ty Worthington made the last of his 33 saves to complete the shutout.

The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena razzed the visiting Growlers through much of the third, chanting “Sweep!  Sweep!  Sweep!” and sarcastically applauding whenever Mollenkamp made an easy save.  Castor, though, cautioned that the series was far from over.

“This one only counts as one win, even though it might have felt like more,” the Igloos coach said.  “If [the Growlers] win tomorrow, it’s a tie series and the home-ice advantage shifts to them.  So we’ve got to keep focus, and not convince ourselves that this is going to be a walk.”

The Igloos will be helped in that pursuit by the return of Frost; Castor said that he expects the star center to play in Game 2.

As for the Growlers, they’ll try to forget about this disaster and move on.  Reagle made a nod in that direction in his postgame press conference; when asked about the game, he initially quipped, “There was a game today?”

The coach had an unorthodox theory about how Milwaukee might climb back into the series: “The Igloos might have used up all their goals in this game,” Reagle said.  “They might regret this later if they just ran out of goals.”

Continue reading “2021 SHL Division Playoffs – Game 1”

Appearances Are Deceiving in Pistols-Badgers Matchup

Looked at one way, the Eastern Division playoff is a study in contrasts.  On one side, you have the Hamilton Pistols, the two-time defending SHL champions going for an unprecedented third straight Vandy.  On the other side, you have the Boston Badgers, in only their fourth season of existence, making their first playoff appearance in their first season with an above-.500 record.

But upon closer inspection, the matchup is a bit different than it appears.  The Pistols are missing one of their key contributors from previous seasons, and have had to rely on some unfamiliar faces to carry the load.  And the Badgers may be new to the postseason as a franchise, but several of their top players have been there before.

“Anyone who thinks this is going to be a lopsided series had better think again,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “This is a bout between two heavyweights, possibly the best two teams in the league.  We know we’re in for a fight in this one.”

Shields’ claim that the Pistols and Badgers are the league’s two best teams has some validity.  While the West has been considered the superior division in previous seasons, the tables appear to have turned this year.  The East got the better of interdivision play, going 73-60-11, and any of the top four teams in the East would have made the playoffs in the West.

“The competition level in this division has gone through the roof,” said Badgers LW Casey Thurman.  “There were four legit Vandy contenders in the East.  We’re glad that we made it to the dance.”

Claude Lafayette

The Pistols come in as the favorite, having finished with the SHL’s best record and making their fourth straight postseason appearance.  But there were some bumps in the road along the way.  Hamilton’s season threatened to go off the rails when they lost top-line RW Claude Lafayette to a season-ending car wreck.  But after a stumbling start, the Pistols got it together and caught fire, determined to win again for their fallen comrade.

“We’re doing this all for Claude,” said LW Steven Alexander.  “He’s our heart and soul.”

As usual, Hamilton’s success was fueled by its explosive offense.  They averaged over 3.5 goals per game, tops in the league by a considerable margin, assisted by a league-leading 10.9% shooting percentage.  Lafayette’s former linemates, Alexander (43 goals, first in the league) and C Calvin Frye (tops in points with 74), carried the biggest part of the scoring load.

With Lafayette sidelined and several other players missing significant time, the Pistols had to count on some new faces for help.  RW Waldo Miranda, who signed as a free agent from Anchorage in the offseason, stepped into Lafayette’s vacant spot on the top line and put up respectable numbers (15 goals, 23 assists, +22, 52.8 CF%).  Fs Kelvin Starkey and Phil Miller, two low-budget veteran depth signings, produced in larger roles than expected.  Starkey appeared in 54 games, largely on the third line, and put up 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists).  Miller played multiple forward positions and produced a respectable 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists) in 31 games.

“I know our stars get most of the headlines, but it’s our depth that makes us really dangerous,” said Shields.  “It’s not just Alex and Fryer; we can roll all three lines and get a good result.”

The Pistols are less proficient on defense; they allow 32.6 shots per game, which places them eight in the league.  But they have a reliable backstop in Lasse Koskinen, who rebounded from a slow start to lead the league in wins with 30 and place fourth in save percentage at a .915 mark.

The Pistols obviously bring a wealth of postseason experience to the table, but the Badgers have more experience than it might seem at first blush.  Several of Boston’s key players are veterans who have been to past playoffs.  Thurman and G Roger Orion both went to the Finals with Washington in 2015 and 2016.  RW Gordon Lunsford and C Warren Marlow won a Vandy with Michigan in 2016, and also made the playoffs in 2018.  D Hans Mortensen made postseason trips with Anchorage, Seattle, and Portland.  And D Ted Keefe was the defensive backbone of the Igloos squads that made five trips to the Finals and won two Vandys.

Boston’s core of veterans calls itself “The Expendables,” a joking reference to the fact that they were all cast off by their former teams, typically for salary-cap reasons.  They are joined by a handful of homegrown younger players (led by C Alain Beauchesne and LW Lix Darnholm) to form a dangerous squad that was in the East’s top two for most of the season, and held off spirited challenges from Quebec and Hershey down the stretch to claim a postseason spot.

While Hamilton’s success is built on offense, Boston’s is built on its stout defense.  The team allowed an average of 27.3 shots per game, second lowest in the league.  The Badgers’ offense, while not as potent as Hamilton’s, is perfectly respectable; they scored 204 goals during the 2021 season, which placed them sixth in the SHL but just five behind second-place Milwaukee.

Ted Keefe

“Our reputation is that we play slow, plodding hockey and that the Pistols will be able to just blow by us,” said Keefe.  “But if you look at the number, that’s not the truth.  We can play fast or slow, whatever tempo the game demands.”

The Badgers’ biggest decision may be choosing a starter in net.  Orion has been Boston’s starter all season, but his results have been mediocre (25-21-3, 2.93 GAA, .895 save percentage).  He has been decisively outplayed by backup Riley Lattimore (10-4-1, 2.06, .916), who shut out Hershey in the season’s final game to clinch the Badgers’ playoff spot.

Boston coach Kyle Barrow hedged slightly when asked about it in the run-up to this series.  “Roger’s been our starter all year, and I don’t see that changing now,” said Barrow.  “Riley’s been terrific, and it’s great to know we have him available if we need him.  But the plan is that Roger’s in net for Game 1.”

Taking Barrow at his word, the starting job is Orion’s to lose.  But if he struggles, will the coach make the move to Lattimore?  Either way, what figures to be a close series might come down to whether the Badgers can get it done between the pipes.

Once Left For Dead, Pistols Sneak Back Into Contention

When Hamilton Pistols RW Claude Lafayette was seriously injured in a car accident in the second week of the season, the team’s initial reaction was shock and concern.  Initial reports suggested that Lafayette’s injuries might be life-threatening, and the players’ first concern was hoping for him to pull through.

Once it became clear that Lafayette would survive, but that he would miss the rest of the year, a different feeling spread across the locker room: “Well, there goes our season.”  Lafayette is one of the league’s top facilitators, in addition to being a stabilizing emotional force on the team in general and his close friend LW Steven Alexander in particular.

Team sources say that Alexander was devastated by his friend’s injury.  In fact, he reportedly talked openly about stepping away from the game so he could help Lafayette get back to health; the coaching staff talked him out of that plan, but their star remained distracted and upset for weeks.  With Lafayette on the sidelines and Alexander in an emotional fog, the Pistols stumbled to a sub-.500 record and remained there.  With Quebec and Boston surging ahead of the pack in the East, and no help waiting in the minors, it seemed like a lost season in Hamilton.

Keith Shields

“I think everyone had basically written us off,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.

A funny thing happened recently, however.  In the last couple of weeks before the All-Star break, Hamilton quietly got its season back on track.  And all of a sudden, after an undefeated post-ASG week, it looks like the two-time defending champs will factor into the East race after all down the stretch.

“It’s not often that a team with two straight titles gets to play the underdog,” said Shields.  “But here we are!”

How have the Pistols done it?  They haven’t made a splashy coaching change, like the Hershey Bliss with Ron Wright.  They haven’t swung any big trades.  Instead, they’ve counted on their existing players to step up when called upon and leaned into their winning clubhouse culture.

Shields pointed to several players who have answered the call in a big way.  Last season, LW Magnus Gunnarson had a breakout performance that suggested he might be ready to ascend to the elite tier of wingers.  This season, with his team in need, Gunnarson is proving that his 2020 was no fluke; he’s among the Pistols’ leading scorers, with 13 goals and 16 assists to go with a +15 rating and a 53,4 CF%.

“Magnus should legitimately be in the MVP conversation if he keeps this up,” said Shields.  “He’s become a true star, and considering how badly we need him to do that, that’s an MVP performance in my mind.”

When Hamilton signed Fs Kelvin Starkey and Phil Miller during the offseason, they were generally viewed as low-cost journeymen who could provide some insurance in case their rookie forwards (RW Anders Pedersen and C Hilliard Macy) didn’t pan out.  Instead, because of Lafayette’s injury, they’ve been used far more heavily than the team ever anticipated.  Starkey has been in the lineup almost every day, and he’s come through with sterling numbers (6 goals, 9 assists, +4) for a third-liner.  Miller hasn’t played quite as often, but he has done well enough to show that he is not washed up, as many in the league assumed after a down year in 2020.

“Stark’s come in and hasn’t missed a beat,” said Shields.  “Whatever role we’ve needed him to play, he’s stepped in and made it happen with a smile on his face.  And with Phil, he’s come in and shown a flexibility that a lot of veterans can’t manage.  He doesn’t get rusty with time off, and he can play multiple games in a row without wearing down.  We’re blessed to have them both here.”

On the defensive side, Raymond Smyth was the Pistols’ top blueliner in their early seasons.  Lately, though, he’s seen his ice time cut as Clayton Risch and Hercules Mulligan have taken over as Hamilton’s top pairing.  This season, however, Smyth has turned back the clock and become a workhorse again, leading the league in blocks while also providing some of the facilitation that the team was missing without Lafayette.

“Ray’s been a revelation,” said Shields.  “He’s picked us up on both ends, and he’s helped keep the locker room together.  Just a totally selfless, team-first performance from him.”

In addition to individual players stepping up, the team as a whole managed to shift mindset from shock and sorrow to competition.  “Our guys have really turned things around from a mental standpoint,” said the coach.  “We went from ‘We can’t with without Claude’ to ‘Hey, let’s go out and win this for Claude!”

The Pistols have reoriented themselves around their greatest asset: a fast, high-scoring offense.  Since the season’s fifth week, they’ve averaged nearly 4 goals per game, a pace that makes them nearly impossible to beat.

“There aren’t too many teams that can keep up with us when we’re clicking,” said C Calvin Frye.  “And we’ve definitely been clicking a lot lately.”

Granted, there’s still a lot of time left in the season.  The East remains brutally competitive; the Tigres, Badgers, and Bliss aren’t going to roll over and let the Pistols reclaim their crown without a fight.  But one thing’s for certain: those who’d left the defending champs for dead spoke too soon.

“We definitely haven’t lost our edge,” said Alexander.  “We’re still young, scrappy, and hungry.  And we know we’ve got to bring the Vandy home for Claude, which just stokes our fire that much hotter.”