When Colin Mills sold his share of the Anchorage Igloos and purchased the Milwaukee Growlers, he figured it was likely that his new team would face his former one in the postseason at some point. He just didn’t think it would be this year.
“I thought we were a good year or two away from contention,” said Mills. “But we arrived ahead of schedule!”
The Growlers (who were the Dakota Jackalopes before relocating in the offseason) survived a crowded race for second place in the West, outlasting Michigan and Saskatchewan to make the postseason for the first time in franchise history. Now, though, they face a tougher challenge: taking out an Igloos teams that has made a trip to the Finals a near-annual occurrence.
The Igloos, especially owner Leslie Mills (Colin’s daughter), seem eager for the matchup. “Getting to fight against a friendly face should really motivate the boys,” said Leslie. “The tables have turned, and they have a chance to prove their success with the better owner.”
Anchorage is the definite favorite in this series. They have experience on their side, having reached the Finals in every year of the SHL’s existence except 2016. They also had the edge in the standings; they pulled away from the pack in the second half and finished with the SHL’s best record. Milwaukee, on the other hand, finished 9 points back… and they would have finished fifth if they played in the East.
The Igloos rolled to a division title in spite of the fact that they were without their leading scorer, C Jake Frost, for a quarter of the season. Frost was still on the IL at the end of the regular season, but coach Sam Castor expects him to return during the playoffs.
One reason that Frost’s injury didn’t sink Anchorage is that they possess a deep and balanced offense; they boasted 11 scorers in double digits for goals. (The Growlers had 10 in that category.)
“We’re definitely a better team when Jake’s in the lineup,” said LW Jerry Koons, whose 19 goals was second on the team. “But we’re still strong even without Jake, and that’s because we have a lot of veteran guys who are comfortable carrying the load.”
Salary-cap constraints forced some roster turnover as usual, but the Igloos’ new pieces proved to be a good fit. Half of the defensive corps consisted of rookies, but Laszlo Cierny (5 G, 23 A, 116 BLK, +23), Brian Coldivar (13 G, 12 A, 52.3 CF%), and Thor Dalmgaard (5 G, 14 A, 96 BLK, 51.2 CF%) all turned in strong campaigns. A pair of free agents, RW Trevor Green (12 G, 20 A, 51.4 CF%) and LW Veikko Sikanen (13 G, 15 A, +20, 52.2 CF%), ably filled bottom-six holes on the wing.
“We’ve got a strong system and a strong locker room,” said Castor. “As long as guys come in with a professional attitude and buy in to the system, they’ll succeed.”
The Growlers don’t have a top-flight scoring threat like the Igloos have in Frost; their highest scorer was RW Arkady Golynin, who had just 22 goals. Milwaukee has a number of strong secondary threats, however, including seven players with 15 or more goals; as a result, they finished with slightly more goals on the season than Anchorage (209 vs. 206).
“We don’t have the prototypical #1 scorer, but we think that’s a plus,” said Growlers LW Zachary Merula. “Instead, we’ve got scoring threats up and down the lineup. There’s never a break with us. It’s not like the third line comes on and you can say, ‘Oh, it’s the scrubs, we can take it easy.’ It’s 60 minutes of pressure.”
The Growlers’ “60 minutes of pressure” includes defense; Milwaukee allowed an average of 30.5 shots per game, nearly a shot a game less than Anchorage. “Everyone here is committed to a 200-foot game,” said D Kirby Hanlon. “If you’re going to score on us, you’re going to have to earn it.”
If there’s one area where the Igloos have an undisputed advantage, it’s in net. Ty Worthington made a strong case as the SHL’s best goaltender this season, leading the league in save percentage (.922) and finishing second in GAA (2.38). Backup Curt Freeze recovered from a slow start to post solid stats as well (12-3-3, 3.01, .906).
The Growlers, meanwhile, saw starter Lorne Mollenkamp take a step back after a solid rookie campaign, never quite seeming to settle into a groove. His final numbers (21-18-4, 3.12, .895) were mediocre at best. When rookie backup Kelvin White also struggled, Milwaukee acquired Washington’s Buzz Carson at the deadline. After going 6-5-0 with a 2.54 GAA and a .917 save percentage in the Cream City, he might have done enough to steal the starting job from Mollenkamp. Growlers coach Rodney Reagle refused to commit to a starter for this series.
Speaking of Reagle, the fun-loving coach is back in the postseason for the first time since 2016, when he took the Galaxy to their second straight SHL Finals. With his team an undeniable underdog, might the irrepressible Reagle pull out some of his old hijinks to fire up his team? Might he try coaching in costume, or giving a postgame interview in a Dracula accent?
Asked if he had anything special planned for the series, Reagle winked and said, “You’ll just have to wait and see. I wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises and ruin the motivational impact.”