Coming into today’s winner-take-all Game 7, Hershey Bliss coach Chip Barber was honest about the challenge his team faced. “It’s a heck of an assignment, that’s for sure,” said Barber. “One game for all the marbles, on enemy ice, and we’re missing our top scorer,” Barber told reporters. “How’s it going to come out? I don’t know. What I do know is that every man in here is going to give everything he has to win it. We’re not holding anything back, because there is no tomorrow.”
In order to dramatize the stakes of the game, Barber placed a bag of marbles in every locker in the visiting locker room. “This is it, we’re playing for all the marbles,” the coach told his players. “And I know you’re all ready to go all in for the victory.” One by one, each player stepped to the center of the room and tossed their marbles into a big bucket with the Bliss logo on it.
Next, injured captain Justin Valentine stepped up. “I’m not going to be able to win it for us out there today,” Valentine said. “So I need you guys to go out there and win it for me. I’ve got total faith in everybody on this team. I know you’ve got what it takes to win this one. Let’s do it!” Valentine then pulled out his iPhone and cued up the ’90s pop song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba, with its inspiring refrain “I get knocked down, but I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down.”
“Maybe it was a little hokey,” admitted the captain, “but it put us in the right mood for the game.”
It definitely seems to have worked, as Hershey managed to eke out a 4-3 win in overtime to stun the Anchorage Igloos and win their first Vandy.
“We’ve been counted out so many times,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet. “But nobody in here ever gave up, nobody ever lost hope. We believed in ourselves, and that carried us through.”
Hershey certainly could have lost hope after the first period, when the Igloos scored twice. LW Les Collins got Anchorage on the board 10:31 into the game with a shot from the half-wall that snuck in under Bliss goalie Brandon Colt‘s armpit. Then with 30 seconds left in the period, the Igloos got set up in Hershey’s end, and LW Jerry Koons deflected a shot past Colt to make it 2-0. The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena roared its approval, thinking the game was in the bag.
“That was a real gut-check moment for us,” said C Henry Constantine. “We knew we were about to let it slip out of our grasp.”
But Anchorage switched to a defensive, trapping style in the second period and they succeeded in slowing the game down and frustrating Hershey’s attempts to generate offensive momentum. As the minutes ticked away, Anchorage’s two-goal lead loomed larger and larger. The Bliss needed a hero. True to the tenor of this series, help came from an unexpected source.
When Hershey acquired LW Vonnie McLearen at the deadline, they hoped he would give them the offensive jolt they needed to take the division title. The deal didn’t quite work out as expected; McLearen struggled to mesh with his new teammates and managed only 2 goals and 10 points in 21 games with the Bliss. He was a non-factor through the first six games of the Finals, failing to record a point and skating anonymously on a third line that achieved virtually nothing in its limited ice time.
But when the Bliss needed a spark in today’s game, it was McLearen who provided it, scoring a pair of goals in the span or 80 seconds to tie the game and stun the Anchorage crowd. When three and a half minutes left in the second period, Hershey finally achieved sustained ice time in the offensive zone. After failing to find a good look at the net in several tries, D Ruslan Gromov fired a hard slapper well wide of the net. But McLearen shook free of his defender and deflected the puck past Igloos goalie Riley Lattimore. Hershey was on the board at last.
But McLearen wasn’t finished. Just over a minute later, the Bliss managed to break the Anchorage press, springing McLearen on an odd-man rush with linemates Sven Danielsen and Lee Fleming. Danielsen headed for the net, faked a hard slapshot, then flipped the puck back to McLearen, who found the upper left corner of the net to make it 2-2.
“Just like that, it was like somebody pulled the plug on the crowd,” said Constantine.
Early in the third period, a visibly frustrated Igloos team committed three straight penalties, putting themselves on the defensive for the first several minutes, including a 5-on-3 situation for over a minute. Anchorage managed to surivive the two-man deficit, but were still on the penalty kill when the Bliss took their first lead of the game. D Nikolai Kulkarov, on a feed from – who else? – McLearen, fired a shot from the blue line that beat a screened Lattimore.
Igloos coach Sam Castor was sharply critical of his team’s play during the opening minutes of the third period. “That was the only time in the series when we really fell down,” said Castor. “We let the game get into our heads, and we played dumb hockey. That isn’t like us, and it cost us.”
Kulkarov’s goal seemed to snap the Igloos out of their funk. On the ensuing faceoff, Bliss D Pierre Chappelle took a double-minor for spearing Collins, and Anchorage cashed in on the power play. C Derek Humplik tied it up with a laser from the top of the right faceoff circle. The score brought the crowd back to life, and seemed to spur both teams on. The second half of the third period was intense, as both teams went flat-out, setting up golden chances and making amazing stops. Kulkarov fired up his team with a series of shot blocks that left him visibly pained but kept the Igloos from scoring the go-ahead goal. On the other end, Lattimore made several brilliant stops, earning a round of stick taps from his teammates.
After 60 minutes, the game remained tied. Sudden-death overtime is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in sports, and when it occurs in a deciding game, the tension ratchets even higher. Both squads were running on fumes and adrenaline in the extra session. “I think we were all dead on our skates at that point,” said Sweet. “The only thing that kept us going was the stakes of the game.”
Perhaps fortunately for both sides, overtime didn’t last long. Just over three minutes in, RW Tyler Cloude turned the puck over in the offensive end. Danielsen corraled it and flung a head man pass to Fleming, who found McLearen on a breakaway. The winger streaked toward the Anchorage net, deked a shot toward the right post, then slid it under a sprawling Lattimore for the winning goal. McLearen celebrated his hat trick by collapsing to the ice and sliding into the boards, before bouncing up and into the arms of his teammates.
“It was a real mountaintop moment,” said Sweet. “It’s the highest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Before the Bliss retired to the locker to spray each other with champagne and chocolate syrup, they shook hands with the Igloos and then received the Vandy from Commissioner Perry Mitchell. The commissioner called Hershey the “never-say-die team” and added, “You showed the skeptics just what an incredible team you are, and you proved that you have the heart of a champion.”
There was no question who would get to take the ceremonial first lap with the trophy. Valentine took his time skating around the ice, both to avoid aggravating his injured leg and to soak in the moment as long as he could.
“We went through a lot to get here,” said the captain as tears rolled down his cheek. “Finally, we made it!”