SHL Player of the Week – Week 14

Riki Tiktuunen

The SHL selected Quebec Tigres G Riki Tiktuunen as its Player of the Week.  The Tigres had an undefeated week, going 3-0-1 to move into a playoff spot in the East, and Tiktuunen’s performance in net played a key role in Quebec’s success.  For the week, the Finnish-born goalie went 2-0-1 with a 1.55 GAA and a .952 save percentage.

All three of Tiktuunen’s starts this week went to overtime.  On Sunday, he stopped 39 shots as Quebec played to a 1-1 tie with league-leading Portland.  On Tuesday, Tiktuunen made 35 saves as the Tigres knocked off Anchorage 4-3 in extra time.  Then on Thursday, Tiktuunen turned aside 26 shots and Quebec notched a literal last-second victory over Washington, 2-1.

“As the season goes on, Riki is more and more playing up to his greatness,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “If we make it to the playoffs, Riki gives us a chance to win any game.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 7

Riki Tiktuunen

The SHL selected Quebec Tigres G Riki Tiktuunen as its Player of the Week.  The Finnish-born netminder has had a fairly rough season, at least by his usual lofty standards, but this week he showed flashes of his typical All-Star form, going 3-0-0 with a 1.33 GAA and a .948 save percentage.

His best game of the week occurred on Sunday, a critical road game against Hershey.  In that game, Tiktuunen stopped 35 shots and led the Tigres to a 4-2 win.  On Tuesday against in Boston, Tiktuunen made 17 saves and beat the Badgers 3-1.  On Thursday, he stopped 22 Saskatchewan shots and shut down the Shockers 3-1.

“We succeed when our defense and goaltending are strong,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “This week, Riki has been playing up to the best of his ability.  It is a joy for me to watch.  When Riki is strong in the crease, our team becomes very dangerous and difficult to defeat.”

No Early Favorites in East

At the quarter pole of the 2020 SHL season, the Western Division is starting to shake itself out as expected.  The Portland Bluebacks are off to a hot start, eager to prove that their 2019 division crown was no fluke.  The Anchorage Igloos have resuscitated from their dreadful opening weeks and are back in the thick of the race, with the Saskatchewan Shockers and Michigan Gray Wolves also in the mix.

The East, meanwhile, is a totally different story.  There are only six points separating the first- and last-place teams.  No one is running away with the division, and no one is entirely out of it (at least not yet).  Each of the contenders has a key flaw that may derail its postseason aspirations.  Here’s a look at the state of play:

The Hamilton Pistols are the defending SHL champions, and they’re determined to become the league’s first back-to-back title-winners.  And offensively, they’re poised to do so: they lead the league in goals (71) and shots per game (39).  And it’s not just the usual suspects who are producing.  The second line of LW Magnus Gunnarson (7 goals, 15 assists), C Marco Venezio (6 goals, 5 assists), and RW Ben Summers (8 goals, 8 assists) has clicked brilliantly, and blueliners such as Clayton Risch (6 goals, 8 assists) and Hercules Mulligan (5 goals, 8 assists) have been activated on offense as well.

So why aren’t the Pistols dominating?  For one thing, they’ve had issues with injuries.  C Calvin Frye recently missed three games, all of which Hamilton lost.  No sooner did he return than LW Steven Alexander went down; he will likely miss several games as well.

The Pistols are struggling in net as well.  #1 starter Lasse Koskinen has rebounded from a poor start, but his numbers (3.39 GAA, .902 save percentage) are not up to his career norms.  And backup Ron Mason (0-3-1, 5.14 GAA, .851 save %) has been atrocious; it’s possible the 36-year-old is washed up.  The goaltending struggles aren’t helped by Hamilton’s awful penalty kill; their 73.7% kill rate is second-worst in the SHL.  If Koskinen continues to improve and the stars stay on the ice, they should be fine, but neither of those things are guaranteed.

The Hershey Bliss are currently tied with Hamilton for first place.  They’re probably the most balanced team in the East.  They’re tied for third in goals (59), and they’re in third in shots allowed per game (31.5).  The “Love Line” (LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, RW Christopher Hart) is clicking along as always.

So why isn’t Hershey much above .500?  They primary culprits appear to be special teams and goaltending.  Their power play, usually a strength, has been merely average so far (20% conversion rate, sixth in the league).  And their penalty kill has struggled; they’re only snuffing 80.4% of power-play chances, ahead of just three other teams.  Neither number is atrocious, but they aren’t helping.

In the net, free-agent signee Christien Adamsson (6-5-1, 2.87, .904) and rookie Nash Gould (2-1-1, 3.18, .906) are putting up quite similar numbers.  Coach Chip Barber has maintained that Adamsson is still the starter, but he may have to explore a more even distribution of minutes if this continues.  And surely, they can’t help noticing that last year’s starter, Brandon Colt (2-0-2, 2.40, .916), is outplaying them both in Michigan.

The Quebec Tigres are two points behind Hamilton and Hershey.  They’re practicing their usual rugged, hard-nosed defense (allowing a league-low 29.1 shots per game and blocking a league-high 16 shots per game), and they’re performing well on special teams.

Part of Quebec’s struggles are typical – their offense is limited, both in quantity (31.3 shots per game, tenth in the league) and quality (8.8% shooting percentage).  But the more surprising issue is the struggles of goalie Riki Tiktuunen (5-5-1, 3.18, .897).  If Tiktuunen cannot resume his usual elite level of play, it’s unlikely that the Tigres will reach the postseason.

The New York Night looked to be out of it last week; there were even rumors that coach Nick Foster was about to be fired.  But they’ve bounced back to the .500 mark, tied with Quebec.  In many ways, they’re the inverse of the Tigres.  They’ve scored 67 goals, second only to the Pistols, powered by a leg-eleading 11.4% shooting percentage.  They are one of two SHL teams with a pair of double-digit goal scorers already in Cs Brock Manning and Rod Remington.

On the defensive end, however, New York is a disaster.  They’re allowing a league-worst 4.08 goals-against average, fueled by a poor defense that yields an eye-popping 41 points per game.  Projected starting netminder Sherman Carter (4-2-1, 5.44, .863) appears to have lost his job to veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-5-1, 3.18, .923), but no goaltender can be expected to stop the barrage of shots that the Night allow.

The Boston Badgers trail Quebec and New York by two points.  Like the Tigres, they’re built around a stout team defense and slow pace (yielding only 29.6 shots per game).  Also like the Tigres, they’re being undermined by a weak offense (having scored a mere 42 on a league-worst 27 shots per game) and a big-name goalie who’s struggling (Roger Orion: 5-6-1, 2.96, .897).  Unlike the Tigres, they are struggling mightily on the penalty kill, with a last-place 70.4% kill rate.

The Washington Galaxy are the one team that seems certain not to contend, although given the traffic jam at the top, they’re still technically within striking distance.  Unlike the other Eastern clubs, however, they’re not strong in any area of the game.  They’re in the bottom third of the league in goals (44), shots per game (32), shots allowed per game (38.8) and GAA (3.67).  They may have an impact on the playoff chase, however, if they decide to move some of their stars, such as LW Casey Thurman.

There’s plenty of time for the division to sort itself out, and for a couple of strong contenders to emerge.  For the time being, however, it looks like it’s (almost) anybody’s game.

Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest

There are perhaps no SHL teams more diametrically opposed in style than the New York Night and the Quebec Tigres.  The Night are well known around the league both for the brash boasts and insults of coach Nick Foster and for their fast-paced, high-flying, high-scoring brand of hockey.  The Tigres, on the other hand, are renowned for their deliberate, hard-hitting, trapping approach to the game; they also prefer to send messages on the ice, rather than in the press.  It’s no surprise that the two teams don’t like each other much, and that their games tend to be fiercely contested.  When both teams are in close contention for a playoff spot, as they are now, their matchups gain an extra layer of excitement.

“Us and New York, it’s like the old saying about the irresistible force vs. the immovable object,” said Tigres LW Walt Camernitz.  “It’s a battle to dictate the game.  Whoever controls the tempo usually wins.”

That’s what made Thursday’s game at Neon Sky Center so unusual and thrilling.  In general, the contest – and the delightfully bonkers third period in particular – was played at New York’s preferred pace.  But it was Quebec that emerged victorious, by an eyebrow-raising 7-5 score.  The win only further tightened the East’s tense playoff chase, in which the top four teams are separated by a mere three points.

“I can’t even be mad we lost this one, because it was just so much fun to watch,” said Foster.

The game’s opening period set the tone for what was to come, as the teams combined for 33 shots (18 of them by the Night).  New York got on the board first 5:56 into the game, when C Rod Remington went short-side to beat Tigres netminder Riki Tiktuunen.  A mere eight seconds later, Quebec struck back with a goal by RW Stephane Mirac.  It took only 51 more seconds for the Tigres to take the lead, courtesy of a top-shelf blast off the stick of Camernitz.

Even though they trailed after the first, the Night remained confident, since the game was being played on their terms.  That confidence took a hit in the second period, as the Tigres scored twice exactly two minutes apart to make it a 4-1 game.  Foster admitted that he thought of removing goalie Jesse Clarkson at that point, but he elected not to.  Instead, in the locker room between periods, the coach urged his team to keep hope alive.

“Remember, you are the most dangerous scoring machine this league has ever seen,” Foster told his players.  “You think a little three-goal deficit can stop a great team like this?  Not a chance.  Let’s go out and show them who we are!”

New York proceeded to go out and do exactly that.  As Foster predicted, they scored four goals in the third period, enough to erase that deficit.  However, they also gave up three, eliminating any shot at a win.

Most of the period’s action was front-loaded, occurring in a frenetic three minutes that Camernitz described as “total insanity.  I’ve never seen that much scoring in a short time, not even playing shinny as a kid.”

Remington kicked off the craziness 47 seconds into the period, jamming home a rebound off a shot by D Dominic Sanchez.  That cut the Night’s deficit to two and brought the crowd to its feet.  It felt like a momentum-shifter.  But less than 30 seconds later, the Tigres swung the momentum firmly back in their direction, thanks to a pair of goals by LW Rupert MacDiarmid only seven second apart.

“Thank God for Rupe,” said Camernitz.  “He really saved our bacon there.”

But the Night weren’t dead yet.  Less than a minute and a half after MacDiarmid’s second goal, New York C Brock Manning deflected a shot from LW Chase Winchester between Tiktuunen’s legs to make it a 6-3 game.  Just 28 seconds later, Winchester and Sanchez got loose on a breakaway.  Tiktuunen bit hard on a fake shot from Winchester, who slid the puck over to Sanchez for a layup into the wide-open net to make it a two-goal game again.

A frustrated Tiktuunen smashed his stick over the crossbar as the New York fans serenaded him with sing-song chants of “Ri-ki, Ri-ki.”

“I was so mad at myself,” Tiktuunen said after the game.  “That goal was a disaster.”

The crowd was kicked into high gear after Sanchez’s goal, and they only got louder and more frenzied after Tigres D Kirby Hanlon took a delay of game penalty a couple minutes later.  “If [the Night] had scored there,” admitted Camernitz, “they probably would have come back and won.”

But Quebec fought off the penalty, and about 20 seconds after it ended, RW Weldon “Candy” Kane buried a shot from the slot to restore the three-goal lead and give everyone on the Tigres bench a chance to breathe.

The Night gave it one more run when RW Ivan Trujwirnek scored with 2:19 left in the game to get New York within two.  But they couldn’t get another tally, and a clipping penalty by D Anson Brank in the final minute snuffed out their final chance at a comeback.

“We really pushed the pace, huh?” said a grinning Foster after the game.  “The grinding little bastards got the W, but they were playing our game.  Nine times out of ten, when we get in a firewagon game like that, we win.”

Predictably, Quebec coach Martin Delorme had a different spin on the outcome.  “Obviously, this game was not to our usual comfort,” he told reporters, “but at this point, the victory is what matters.  Next time we play them, we can win 1-0 and make me happier.”

Continue reading “Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest”

Outlook Hazy in Closely-Contested East

The 2019 SHL season is less than one-third of the way complete, but we’re starting to see the playoff picture take shape in the Western Division.  Barring a dramatic change of fortune, the Michigan Gray Wolves and Seattle Sailors are the favorites to make the postseason.  Similarly, the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke are nearly certain to be on the golf course come springtime.  That means the Anchorage Igloos and Saskatchewan Shockers will likely be chasing the Wolves and Sailors in the quest for a playoff berth.

In the East, however, nothing seems certain.  There is no obviously dominant team, and only one club appears to be out of contention.  Each of the contending teams has key strengths, but also potentially fatal weaknesses.  At this stage of the season, the East appears completely up for grabs.

“If you think you know who’s coming out of this division this year, I want to see your crystal ball,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Looks like it’s anybody’s game right now.”

The first-place Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in 2017, and the fluky shooting-percentage issues that helped doom them last season aren’t plaguing them this time around.  They’re fundamentally solid at both ends; they’re averaging 37.1 shots per game (second in the league) while allowing only 31.2 (good for fifth).  They’re also benefiting from strong special-teams play, with their power play (26% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.5%) both in the top three in the league.

However, these numbers mask a curious weakness in 5-on-5 play, which is exposed by their -7 rating.  “5-on-5 has been a problem for us,” acknowledged Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “It’s definitely been a bittersweet season so far.”

Hershey’s biggest problem, though, may be its longest-standing one.  The Bliss have perennially struggled to find security between the pipes.  They tried hard to land an upgrade during the offseason, only to strike out and settle for re-sign incumbent Brandon Colt.  Colt’s 11-4-0 record is impressive, but his underlying numbers (2.97 GAA, .905 save percentage) are hardly dominating.  If the Bliss are going to be serious contenders, they may need to improve in net.

The New York Night have surprised many observers with a strong start, and they currently sit in second, three points behind Hershey.  They’ve been the league’s most potent offense (with 75 goals on 39.5 shots per game), which was expected.  But they’ve traditionally been doomed by poor numbers at their own end.  This year, they’ve been better than usual, thanks in large part to a strong performance from goaltender Jesse Clarkson (9-5-1, 2.78, .923).

“To me, Jesse’s been our MVP so far,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “He’s really saved our bacon.”

There’s more truth to Foster’s statement than he might intend.  New York’s defense remains lackluster; they’re allowing 37.1 shots per game, tied for worst in the league.  If Clarkson’s numbers slip back toward his career norms, or if he gets hurt, the Night might be doomed.

In addition, the team is benefitting from a 29.3% conversion rate on power plays.  Even for New York, which traditionally thrives in man-advantage situations, that seems unsustainable.

The Hamilton Pistols made the playoffs for the first time last year, and they returned all the key players from last season’s run.  They’re thriving 5-on-5, with their +17 rating the best in the SHL.  Their defense looks even stronger than last season; they’ve allowed a mere 29.2 shots per game so far, third best in the league.  They’ve gotten typically strong netminding from Lasse Koskinen (8-5-1, 2.22, .927).  And C Calvin Frye (16 goals, 12 assists) looks like a potential MVP candidate.

So why haven’t they broken out of the pack?  One key reason is their special-teams play.  Last season, those units were among the league’s best.  This season, their 13% power-play percentage and their 75.9% PK efficiency are both second-worst in the league.

Surprisingly, the Pistols’ biggest issue may be their biggest star.  LW Steven Alexander is off to an uncharacteristically slow start; his 6 goals are tied for third-highest total on the team.  It’s possible that the notoriously sensitive Alexander was rattled by his karaoke-bar birthday misadventures in New York.  Or maybe the slump is just a temporary blip.  But Hamilton typically rises and falls on Alexander’s stick, so they need him to turn things around soon.

The Quebec Tigres came within a game of winning the Vandy last season, and they have designs on making a return trip this season.  So far, though, they’ve been unable to keep their heads about the .500 waterline.  Offensively, they continue to click, with top scorers LW Walt Camernitz and RW Stephane Mirac continuing to produce at the rate that got them to the playoffs last year.

Ultimately, though, Quebec’s success is built around defense and goaltending, as always.  And while they’ve been solid in those areas this year, they haven’t been quite as good as they need to be.  They’re allowing 30 shots per game, fourth in the league.  Good, but not top-tier.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen (6-6-3, 2.30, .923) has been good, but has not duplicated the form that won Goaltender of the Year last season.  The team needs Tiktuunen to perform at that elite level to succeed.

Tigres coach Martin Delorme argued that the injury to top blueliner Richard McKinley has hit his team hard.  “We are still trying to find our best pairings in his absence,” Delorme said.  “To lose a player of his caliber, it is a challenge.”  The coach did not rule out the possibility of Quebec upgrading their defensive corps via trade.

The Boston Badgers are surprisingly on the fringes of the race, despite the fact that they were an expansion team last season.  Top draft choice C Alain Beauchesne looks like the Rookie of the Year front-runner so far (11 goals, 16 assists), and G Roger Orion (5-8-2, 2.75, .916) looks like the free-agent game-changer that Boston’s front office was hoping for.

“Rog is a good enough goalie to keep you in any game,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.

In the long run, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to contend this season.  They’re currently being outshot 32.4 to 21.2 on average, and that’s too big a gap for even a scrappy Badgers team to overcome.  “I’d never say never with this bunch,” Prince cautioned.  “They’ve got a lot of fight in them.”

Even the last-place Washington Galaxy, stuck in last and seemingly headed for a dismal year, have a possible case for optimism.  Their 7.95% shooting percentage is among the league’s worst, and seems due to revert to the mean.  Then again, people said that about the Bliss last season, and they never recovered from their horrendous start.  And Hershey’s defense was a lot better than Washington’s leaky unit (which is allowing 37.1 shots per game).

“When it rains, it pours,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello.  “And it feels like we’ve been living through a hurricane.”

There’s plenty of time for the race to shake out and for some teams to separate themselves from the pack.  For now, though, it’s a wild and wide-open ride for the Eastern teams and their fans.

Strong Showing for Tigres at SHL Annual Awards

Starlight Hockey LeagueThe SHL’s third annual awards banquet had a definite theme.  Several of the awards went to members of the Quebec Tigres, who went from finishing in last place in 2017 to coming within a game of winning their first-ever SHL title.  “The Tigres went on a remarkable journey this season,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  “It’s great to see that journey recognized with these very well-deserved honors.”  As always, the awards were voted on by SHL players, coaches, and media.

The 2018 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: LW Walt Camernitz, Quebec Tigres

Camernitz signed with Quebec as a free agent this season, landing a five-year, $20 million deal.  The Tigres hoped that Camernitz would provide a spark for their stagnant offense, and he provided it in spades.  He wound up recording 31 goals and 74 points, both good enough to place him in the league’s top 10.  In addition to his stellar performance, he elevated his teammates’ games; linemates Stephane Mirac and Mikhail Ilyushin both had career seasons beside him.

“When you are a big-name free agent, there is a great weight on you to perform,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “Walt took that very seriously, and he gave us everything we could have hoped for.  I am most grateful for him.”

Other finalists for the MVP honor included Hamilton C Calvin Frye, Anchorage C Jake Frost, and Washington RW Jefferson McNeely.

Coach of the Year: Martin Delorme, Quebec Tigres

This season has been a sweet vindication for Delorme, who walked away from a Michigan team on the cusp of championship contention in order to help his hometown team get off the ground.  In only the third season of the Tigres’ existence, Delorme guided the club to the Finals and nearly to the Vandy.

“Coach Delorme has kept us together and focused on playing our best,” said Mirac.  “He doesn’t accept excuses.  But he’s also a good man to play for, and we know that he is solid behind us all the way.

Delorme beat out Hamilton’s Keith Shields. Michigan’s Ron Wright, and Anchorage’s Sam Castor to win the honor.


Rookie of the Year: 
LW Lix Darnholm, Boston Badgers

Darnholm was universally regarded as the best pure scorer in the draft, so it came as little surprise when the expansion Badgers chose the 19-year-old Swede as their franchise centerpiece with the top puck.  Although Boston had a rough debut season, Darnholm delivered on his considerable promise, scoring nearly a quarter of the Badgers’ total goals.  He led all rookies in goals with 29 and in points with 60.

“Lix is a joy to watch on the ice,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.  “He’s a fluid skater and a sharp passer, and he has a remarkably heavy shot for a guy who’s as skinny as he is.  And he’s got a sense of the game a lot beyond his years.  I’ve guzzled a lot of Maalox coaching this team, but not because of Lix.”

Darnholm withstood a surprisingly strong challenge from Kansas City C Darien Picard to win the votes.  Also receiving consideration were Quebec D Laurie Workman, Kansas City RW Zachary Merula, and Washington G Darrell Bondurant.

Sharp Shooter Award and Commissioner’s Trophy: RW Jefferson McNeely, Washington Galaxy

The Sharp Shooter Award and the Commissioner’s Trophy are the two awards that are not given out as the result of a vote.  The Sharp Shooter Award is given to the player who finished with the highest goal total, while the Commissioner’s Trophy is bestowed on the player with the most points.  This season, for the first time ever, both awards went to the same player: McNeely, who was a shining star in a difficult season for the Galaxy. For the second straight year, Hamilton’s Steven Alexander was the runner-up for the Sharp Shooter award, finishing with one goal fewer than McNeely’s 57.

Meanwhile, the Washington winder finished the year one shy of the century mark in points, adding 42 assists to his league-leading goal total.  That gave him a comfortable eight-point margin over Hamilton’s Claude Lafayette.

“Obviously, this is a team sport, and we really want to win things as a team,” said McNeely.  “But this was a good season for me personally, and I’m glad that I’ll be able to take some positive memories away from the year.  I’d rather have a Vandy on the mantle, sure, but this is a good consolation prize.”


Goalie of the Year: 
Riki Tiktuunen, Quebec Tigres

This award was a bit of a surprise, as it was the first time that Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist didn’t take home the trophy.  In 2018, Lundquist had a bit of a down season by his usual standards, but still remained among the league’s elite, going 38-12-4 with a 1.69 GAA and a .934 save percentage.  But some combination of the Tigres’ surprising season and a desire to reward a fresh face led the voters to select Tiktuunen instead, in a close vote.

Tiktuunen had a very strong campaign, and played a key role in Quebec’s success.  On the season, Tiktuunen went 31-20-1 with a 2.03 GAA and a .930 save percentage.  The Finnish-born netminder gained a reputation around the league for his stoic, cold-blooded demeanor and his ability to avoid getting rattled in difficult situations.

“Riki’s so cool and calm that he helps keep the rest of us calm,” said teammate Richard McKinley.  “He’s like a security blanket, because you know he’s going to take care of business no matter what happens.”

Defenseman of the Year: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan Gray Wolves

This is the second straight year that a Wolves player won this honor; Kronstein’s teammate Max Madison captured the award last season.  Kronstein is not as pugilistically inclined as Madison, who is infamous for dropping the gloves at the slightest provocation.  However, Kronstein is just as capable a defender as his counterpart on Michigan’s top pairing, leading the league in blocked shots and among the top five in takeaways.

In addition to his defensive excellence, Kronstein is a strong contributor in the offensive end.  His 59 points were the second-most among SHL blueliners in 2018, and his 18 goals and +34 rating led all defensemen.  “Fritz is an amazingly dynamic young player,” said coach Ron Wright.  “He’s a strong physical presence, but he’s also surprisingly fast, and he’s an excellent scorer and passer.  He’s the total package.”

Kronstein emerged victorious out of a crowded field that included 2016 winner Raymond Smyth of Hamilton, along with Dakota’s Matt Cherner, Hershey’s Reese Milton, and New York rookie Donald Duckworth.

 

2018 SHL Finals – Game 7

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 4, QUEBEC TIGRES 3

There were several points this season when it appeared that the Anchorage Igloos would fail in their quest for their second Vandy.  The team hovered around the .500 mark for much of the season.  Coach Sam Castor called his club out for a lack of effort at one point.  Even as late as the trading deadline, it wasn’t clear whether the Igloos would be able to hold on to a playoff spot.

Anchorage finished the season strong, however, and seemed prepared to rampage through the postseason.  They swept the Michigan Gray Wolves in the division playoff, then won three straight in the Finals to push the Quebec Tigres to the brink.  But in one final, cruel twist of fate, they proceeded to lose three straight to Quebec to even the series, leaving it up to a winner-take-all Game 7 at Centre Citadelle.

“I suppose we could have made it harder on ourselves,” said C Jake Frost, “but I’m not sure how.”

Fortunately, Anchorage was up to the challenge.  In a game for the ages, the Igloos rallied from behind twice with the help of some unlikely faces and squeezed out a 4-3 victory, becoming the first two-time SHL champion.

“We really went through hell to get here,” said Castor, “but that makes the victory so much sweeter.”

After being manhandled by the Tigres in Game 6, the Igloos needed to get their offense back on track in this contest.  They got off to a decent start in the first period, outshooting Quebec 11-8, but they couldn’t get one past goalie Riki Tiktuunen.  Worse yet, Castor sensed that some of his stars – particularly Frost and RW Nicklas Ericsson – were pressing a bit.

“We were definitely playing tight out there early,” said the Anchorage coach.  “I knew we needed to do something to shake things up.”

To top it all off, D Tony Citrone was penalized in the first couple minutes of the game for a slashing call that the Igloos considered highly questionable.  On the ensuing power play, Tigres RW Stephane Mirac deflected a knuckling puck just inside the post to give the home team a 1-0 lead that stood up through period’s end.

Heading into the second, Castor decided to take a gamble.  The Igloos coach decided to give more ice time to their bottom line of LW Waldo Miranda, C Harvey Bellmore, and RW Broni Zhlotkin.  That group earned themselves the nickname “The Circus Squad” both because of their penchant for practical jokes and their tendency to make on-ice mistakes.  Castor tends to limit their shifts for that reason, but he gambled that their goofy nature might be an advantage in a high-pressure game like this.

“I figured they were too dumb to get scared,” said the Igloos coach.

Castor’s hunch paid off in a big way.  Two and a half minutes into the second period, during an extended offensive shift, Bellmore drifted close to the net and redirected a shot from D Olaf Martinsson over Tiktuunen’s right pad to tie the score at 1.

The deadlock lasted less than a minute, however, as D Laurie Workman fired a slapshot that beat a screened Ty Worthington to put Quebec back in front.

Castor’s solution?  Put the Circus Squad right back out there.  And just 16 seconds after Workman’s tally, Bellmore went top-shelf on Tiktuunen to tie the score back up.  To celebrate his offensive explosion, Bellmore beat his chest and let out a Tarzan scream.

“Sometimes, you just need to send the nutcases out there,” said Castor.

Later on in the period, LW Jerry Koons got the top line on the board, finishing a breakaway by beating Tiktuunen on the glove side and giving the Igloos their first lead of the game.

“We couldn’t let the bottom line do all the work,” quipped Koons.

The Igloos weren’t quite out of the woods yet.  A minute and a half into the third period, Mirac fired a laser past Worthington for his second goal of the game, tying the score.  Once again, the Circus Squad came to the rescue.  Bellmore, trying for a hat trick, fired a shot that wound up in a scrum in front of the net.  The puck wound up bouncing to Miranda, who fed it over to Zhltokin.  The rugged winger wrestled free of his defender and slapped it home to put the Igloos ahead for good.

“If anyone predicted that Broni Zhlotkin was going to get the goal that won the Finals, I want to meet that guy,” said Castor.  “He and I are going down to the racetrack.”

Anchorage still had to weather a couple of late Quebec rushes, but Worthington was on duty and kept the Tigres from tying the score.  With about two minutes left in the game, Mirac skated behind the net and tried a wraparound shot, but Worthington got over in the nick of time and deflected it with his skate blade.

The postgame handshake line was far from the usual perfunctory routine.  Players on both side squeezed each other’s arms, thumped chests, and even hugged.  It was a gesture of mutual respect between a pair of worthy adversaries who expect to see each other again in a situation like this.

“Quebec gave us everything we could handle,” said Castor.  “Stephane and his team deserve a ton of credit.  We got the Vandy this time, but I’m sure they’ve got one ahead of them.”

For his part, Tigres coach Martin Delorme kept his focus on the future.  “We learned a lot of lessons here that will serve us well,” Delorme told reporters.  “We faced a great team and nearly beat them.  I cannot wait for next season.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 7”