(Hamilton leads series, 1-0)
The SHL Finals got off to a fast start. Both teams came out in top offensive form; they combined to fire 88 shots on goal. But it was the defending champion Hamilton Pistols who got the upper hand, breaking the game open in the second period and cruising to a 6-3 victory over the Anchorage Igloos.
“We played the kind of game we wanted to play today,” said Pistols C Calvin Frye, who scored two of Hamilton’s half-dozen goals. “We controlled the flow of play, kept the energy level high, and came away with the W.”
The first period established that this was going to be an offense-focused contest, but it wasn’t clear who would come away with the win. The teams were trading goals in the early going. The home team struck first, as D Burt “Hacksaw” Hampton – normally known more for his hard-hitting defense than his scoring touch – pounced on a loose puck above the faceoff circle and swatted it past a screened Ty Worthington and into the Anchorage net. Worthington never tracked the puck, and didn’t flinch as it sailed over his catching glove.
“That was a real goal-scorer’s goal,” said LW Steven Alexander, struggling to suppress a smirk. “Can’t wait to see the highlight reel on that.”
Just over a minute later, Igloos D Sebastian Pomfret deflected a slap-pass under the crossbar to tie things up. About a minute after that, RW Claude Lafayette finished an odd-man rush with a knuckling shot that Worthington couldn’t corral before it crossed the goal line, putting Hamilton back in the lead. On the following faceoff, Igloos C Jake Frost won the draw, then promptly led his team up the ice and pumped a slapshot top shelf. Less than 5 minutes had elapsed, and the score already stood 2-2.
“At that point, it felt like we were headed for a football-type score,” said Frye. “It was a little too crazy out there.”
After the initial adrenaline rush wore off, the pace settled down slightly, and the red-light parade came to a halt. It wasn’t until after the halfway point of the period that Frye jabbed one home from the slot to break the deadlock, and got the crowd cranked up again.
Both sides agree that the key momentum shift occurred at the end of the first frame and the beginning of the second. The Pistols had a pair of power plays that were virtually back-to-back and came up empty. Then, with less than two minutes to go in the first, Hampton caught Igloos C Tom Hoffman up high with his stick. Hoffman came away with a nasty cut below his eye; Hampton came away with a double-minor for high-sticking.
Anchorage had four minutes with which to tie the game or take the lead. And they tried their hardest; they kept the puck in the offensive zone for well over three minutes of the man advantage and fired seven shots. But Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen didn’t buckle under the assault, stopping all seven, sometimes with acrobatic moves that left the crowd roaring.
As the seconds ticked away and the Igloos still couldn’t find the equalizer. The Pistols and their fans steadily gained confidence as Koskinen stopped shot after shot. And 35 seconds after the power play came up empty, RW Kenny Patterson swooped into the Anchorage zone and beat Worthington short-side to make it a 4-2 game. Frye added his second tally a few minutes later to put the home team firmly in command.
“That double-minor, and the fact that we couldn’t convert, that swung the whole game,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor. “Tip of the cap to Koskinen there; he really stood on his head. But when we came up with that goose egg, and then Patterson went down and scored, that was a real back-breaker.”
The teams traded goals early in the third – C J.C. Marais scored for Hamilton, while Pomfret got his second for Anchorage – but the outcome was never really in doubt.
Pistols coach Keith Shields lauded praise on Koskinen, who made 40 saves in all. “We really needed Koski today,” Shields said. “It was a run-and-gun type of game, and you really need your goalie to be on his toes in that kind of game. Koski definitely was. Obviously, he was huge on that penalty kill, but all game he was seeing the puck great and making tremendous saves. It’s a totally different game if he has an off night.”
If Koskinen and the Pistols are sharp again in tomorrow’s Game 2, they’ll be halfway to being the SHL’s first bakc-to-back champs. But Anchorage will be eager to tilt the ice and even the series.
“We’ll be ready to bring the fight to them tomorrow,” said Frost. “We had our hands full with them today, but they’ll have their hands full with us tomorrow.”