MICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 3, WASHINGTON GALAXY 2
A lot of things had to happen for Ron Wright to become the coach of the Michigan Gray Wolves. The Wolves had to come up short to Anchorage in the Western race. The SHL had to decide to expand to Quebec, and incumbent Wolves coach Martin Delorme had to decide to leave and coach his hometown team. Wright had to have a falling-out with Hamilton, the team he coached last season, and decide to leave.
Both Wright and the Wolves couldn’t be happier that everything worked out the way it did. The fit between the gritty, hard-working, serious-minded team and the driven, fanatically prepared, and hard-nosed coach was perfect. The Wolves thrived under Wright’s leadership, and they completed their mission today, defeating the Washington Galaxy 3-2 to win the SHL Finals and claim their first Vandy.
“No way do we get this far without Coach Wright,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes. “When we got off to a strong start, he was on us to make sure we didn’t slack off or take our foot off the gas. And when Warren [Marlow] went down, he made sure we kept our heads up and didn’t let it get to us. He was our guiding light all the way.”
Wright, meanwhile, gave credit to the players. “It’s a privilege to coach these guys,” said the Michigan boss. “As a coach, you can give them a map and show them the way, but they’re the ones who have to take the journey. These guys have never hesitated; they’ve been willing to pay the price to be great. They’ve worked hard, practiced hard, kept their noses to the grindstone. This is the payoff. The champagne tastes pretty sweet.”
The Wolves looked set to run away with the Finals after they captured the first two games by a combined score of 6-0. But after the series shifted to Washington, the competition became much tighter. The Galaxy took two of the three games at Constellation Center, and each game was decided by a single goal. The Wolves suffered a major blow when Marlow, their second-line center, went down with an apparent concussion in Game 4.
As the series came back to Cadillac Place for Game 6, the Wolves were eager to close out the series. “We weren’t panicking, for sure,” said D Frank Mudrick. But we definitely didn’t want it to go seven.”
The first period was an action-packed one, as the teams combined for 23 shots. Michigan struck fairly quickly, as Bailes beat Galaxy goalie Roger Orion with a backhand to the glove side less than five minutes into the game.
“That helped settle us,” said Bailes. “Definitely better to play from ahead.”
But Washington didn’t fold. They held the Wolves to that 1-0 lead for the rest of the period. And a couple minutes into the second period, Washington got the equalizer on a slapshot by LW Casey Thurman.
Midway through the second, a much slower period offensively, Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely was hit with a double minor for spearing the Wolves’ Jorma Seppa. On the ensuing power play, RW Oskar Denison buried a shot from the top of the faceoff circle to give Michigan the lead again, and they carried that 2-1 edge into the dressing room at the end of the period.
During the break, Wright urged his team to turn it up a notch. “A one-goal lead isn’t safe,” Wright told his men. “Get the next one, and we can break their back.”
Unfortunately for Michigan, the team didn’t heed Wright’s admonition. Less than two minutes into the third period, McNeely tied it up again by firing a low slapper past a screened Dirk Lundquist. As the third period wore on, the Wolves’ repeated attempts to reclaim the lead went frustratingly awry: they pushed several shots just wide, and Denison fired a head-hunter that got past Orion but banged off the crossbar.
In the final minute, with both teams seeming content to play for overtime, Wright called timeout and admonished his team. “You look dead on your feet out there!” the coach barked. “There’s no ties in the playoffs. Let’s go out there and win this right now! They can’t hold out much longer. Go out there and knock ’em out!”
Wright’s pep talk paid off. The Wolves came out of the timeout with more energy, winning the faceoff and storming down into the Washington end. Wolves D Fritz Kronstein fed a beautiful pass to a streaking Seppa, who fired a hard, low shot. Orion made a tremendous sprawling save, but couldn’t corral the rebound. The puck bounced out to Bailes, who elevated it just out of Orion’s reach and dented the twine with 27 seconds left.
“We knew it was over then,” said McNeely. “We knew we weren’t coming back from that.”
After the final horn sounded, the victorious Wolves celebrated with boisterous elan. A jubilant Lundquist hopped on top of his net and waved his stick to lead the crowd in cheers and chants, then clambered down and did a pair of cartwheels on the ice. Bailes, Seppa, and RW Gordon Lunsford fired their helmets and gloves into the crowd, giving several fans priceless souvenirs of an unforgettable night. Backup goalie Art Cowan raced onto the ice with as many bottles of bubbly as he could hold in his jersey, and the players sprayed each other and the fans.
A little later, SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell emerged with the Vandy and handed it to Wolves owner Luke Faltura, saying, “If ever there was a team that balanced style and grace with blood and guts, it’s got to be the Michigan Gray Wolves. Enjoy a trophy well-earned!” There was a brief awkward pause, as the team sorted out who would have the honor of taking the trophy on its first ceremonial lap around the ice.
Finally, Bailes and Lundquist grabbed Wright, hoisted him on their shoulders, and handed him the Vandy. As Wright circled the ice, supported by his players, he waved to the crowd and blinked back tears.
“That was a metaphor for our whole season,” said Wright. “From the first day of practice to our ultimate moment of glory, we did it together. That’s what makes this team so special.”
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