Igloos Ponder Future After Difficult Finals Loss

The Anchorage Igloos have been the SHL’s standard of excellence since the league’s beginning.  They’ve been a great regular-season team, and they’ve been even better in the playoffs; they’ve been to the SHL Finals five times in six seasons.  They’ve had some big wins (championships in 2015 and 2018), and they’ve had some tough losses (like their 2017 Finals loss to the Hershey Bliss).

One thing had never happened to the Igloos before: they’d never been decisively outplayed in a postseason series.  That is, until now, when the Hamilton Pistols won their second straight Vandy in a five-game series in which they were clearly the superior team.

“This is different for us,” said C Jake Frost.  “We’ve lost before, but [the losses] were always close.  Even last year, the puck bounces different a couple times, and maybe that goes our way.  But this year, [the Pistols] just flat-out beat us.  They were the better team in this series.  We’re not used to that.”

Coach Sam Castor echoed Frost’s assessment.  “Coming into the Finals, after the way we knocked out Portland, we were feeling pretty confident,” the coach noted.  “We were hot, and we felt like we were poised for the win.  But Hamilton just took control of those games, and we couldn’t adjust.  That’s never happened to us before.”

Just like last year, the Igloos face some difficult contract decisions in the offseason.  The team is always right up against the salary cap, and they’ve got several players who need new contracts, led by D Ted Keefe, C Tom Hoffman, and winger Waldo Miranda.  It’s likely that the team will be saying goodbye to at least one or two key contributors by next season.

“We’re a tight-knit group that’s been through a lot together, and it’s hard to think about not being part of that anymore,” said Keefe, who directed his agent to halt extension talks in midseason to avoid the off-ice distraction.  “But change is part of life.  We’ll have to see what happens.”

In addition to the offseason roster shuffle, the Igloos face a large question: how much longer can their dynasty last?  It’s reasonable to argue that Hamilton, with consecutive championships, is now the SHL’s standard of excellence.  But Anchorage’s core is aging, there are rising powers in the West as well.  The Portland Bluebacks, who finished first in the regular season before suffering their playoff upset, should be as strong as ever.  The Saskatchewan Shockers have been on a steady upward climb, and the Kansas City Smoke have improved as well.  Even the Dakota Jackalopes, likely playing in a new city with a larger payroll, could be a threat.  Anchorage isn’t even guaranteed to make the playoffs next season.

“We’re not handing over our crown until someone takes it from us,” said LW Jerry Koons.  “But yeah, the division isn’t going to be a cakewalk, and we’ll need to be ready for that.”

Koons has a point; It would be foolhardy to count out a team with the Igloos’ talent and experience.  But it would also be myopic to assume that they will remain a Finals fixture forever.

“This team has some good runs left in them, I’m confident of that,” said Castor.  “It’s just going to be more of a fight.  But we’ve got that fight.”

2020 SHL Finals – Game 5

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1

(Hamilton wins series, 4-1)

As the Hamilton Pistols prepared for a potential Finals-clinching Game 5, LW Steven Alexander stood in the middle of the visiting locker room and made a brief but powerful statement.

“This ends tonight,” said Alexander of the series.  “When we go back to Hamilton, I don’t want to play more hockey.  I want to be able to go party and celebrate with our friends.  Who’s with me?”

The other Pistols shouted their assent.  Then they went out and dominated the Anchorage Igloos, cruising to a 5-1 win and becoming the first team in SHL history to win back-to-back championships.

“Double Vandys, baby!” crowed Alexander after the game.  “We’ve started a revolution in the SHL.  The old empires are falling, and now it’s our time!”

The first period was competitive, as the Igloos – fighting for their playoff lives – came out fast.  They outshot Hamilton 16-7 in the opening stanza.  But thanks to Lasse Koskinen‘s strong goaltending and a couple of quality shots, the Pistols came away with a lead after 20 minutes.

The Igloos took the first six shots of the game, but couldn’t get any of them behind Koskinen.  When the Pistols finally got some offensive zone time about five minutes in, it didn’t take RW Claude Lafayette long to score the game’s first goal with a fierce snipe that snuck in between Igloos goalie Ty Worthington‘s left arm and torso.

That initial lead was short-lived; Igloos C Jens Bunyakin scored the equalizer just 30 seconds later.  But the Pistols didn’t let that slow them down.  Later in the period, Anchorage was setting up for another extended offensive shift when Pistols D Albie Glasco managed to poke-check the puck away from Igloos LW Jerry Koons and over the blue line.  That set up a Hamilton jailbreak, which ended with a gorgeous drop pass to C Calvin Frye, who stashed it in the upper left corner of the net to make it a 2-1 game.

“Even though [the Igloos] got most of the shots in the first, we still came out ahead,” said Frye.  “We felt confident at that point that we were going to take it.”

Over the final 40 minutes, the Pistols slowly squeezed the life out of both the Igloos offense and the fans at Arctic Circle Arena as they steadily added to their lead.  Anchorage had as many shots in the first as they did over the rest of the game.

“I have to hand it to them,” said Igloos C Jake Frost of his victorious opponent.  “They could have tried to trap and sit on their lead, but they didn’t.  They really took it to us.”

Hamilton added two more goals in the second period, one early in the period on a slapshot by D Clayton Risch, and another late in the period on a tip-in at the doorstep by C J.C. Marais.

Alexander, naturally, put the capper on things early in the third with a blast from his favorite spot at the edge of the left faceoff circle.  The feisty winger dropped his stick and thrust his arms in the air, then skated over to the waiting embrace of his teammates.  As the Pistols celebrated, their whoops and hollers echoed in the rafter of the painfully quiet arena.

After Alexander’s score, it was just a matter of letting the time wind off the clock.  As the minutes ticked away, several Igloos stars on the bench covered their heads with towels, either to hide their emotions or so they didn’t have to watch.  Others sat, staring blankly into the distance as their championship hopes withered away.

When the final horn sounded, though, the Igloos raised their sticks in the air in tribute to their fans.  And the crowd gave their fallen heroes a standing ovation.  They even saved some applause for the winning Pistols, who acknowledged the tribute before heading down to the locker room to celebrate.

The post-game scene was a boisterous, jubilant celebration.  The Pistols smoked cigars and poured champagne over themselves and each other.  Players swayed arm-in-arm, singing old drinking songs off key in between swigs of beer and whiskey.

“I can’t think of a group of guys I’d rather go to war with,” crowed Alexander.  “These are my friends, my teammates, my comrades in arms.  Next year, let’s go for a three-peat!”

Coach Keith Shields, tie askew and suit jacket missing, celebrated his players.  “In victory, the glory always goes to God,” said Shields, “but these boys worked so hard for this all season, and they deserve this celebration.  It’s been my honor and privilege to share it with them!”

In the home locker room, Igloos coach Sam Castor paid tribute to the champions.  “They just outplayed us,” Castor said.  “It’s not often that I have to say that, but it’s true.  It was a good, clean. well-played series, but they outplayed us. and they deserved the Vandy.  It’s a tough pill for us to swallow, but it gives us a little extra fuel for next season.”

Continue reading “2020 SHL Finals – Game 5”

2020 SHL Finals – Game 4

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 6, HAMILTON PISTOLS 4

(Hamilton leads series, 3-1)

For the Anchorage Igloos, there was only one goal in today’s Game 4: don’t get swept.  After the Hamilton Pistols won the first three games of the SHL Finals, the Igloos were on the brink of that ignominious end, and they were determined not to let that happen.  Not in front of their own fans at Arctic Circle Arena.  For a proud veteran team, the thought of such a humiliation was too much to bear.  And they didn’t let it happen, scoring four times in the second period on the way to a 6-4 win.

“This is the statement we’ve been looking for all series,” said C Jake Frost.

When the puck dropped to open the second, the game was tied 1-1 and the outcome was far from certain.  Igloos C Tom Hoffman, skating on the top line in a shake-up move by coach Sam Castor, won the faceoff and slid the puck to LW Jerry Koons.  Koons raced up the ice and passed it back to Hoffman, who began to loop behind the net, only to fire it just before he crossed the goal line and put it in to give the Igloos the lead.

Five minutes later, RW Nicklas Ericsson got behind the Hamilton defense and received a perfect pass from D Sebastian Pomfret.  Ericsson broke in alone on the net, dangled a bit, then went high to put the Igloos up by two.

“Nick is such a brilliant passer and facilitator that it’s easy to overlook his scoring talent,” said Castor.  “Just a remarkable player.”

Unlike in previous games, Anchorage managed to keep the Pistols from seizing the momentum.  When D Russ Klemmer scored to put Hamilton back within one less than a minute later, the Igloos kept the pressure on.  It was Frost who crashed the net and collected the loose puck and jammed it in to restore Anchorage’s two-goal lead.  When Pistols C Marco Venezio cut the deficit in half again, the Igloos needed just nine seconds for Koons to score on a slapshot from the slot.

Early in the third period, the Pistols threatened one more time when D Clayton Risch scored on a fluky looper of a shot that grazed the crossbar and went in.  This time, Anchorage’s seldom-used third line pitched in, as RW Jean Pierre Fleury juked his defender with a beautiful toe drag and then fired a shot about Hamilton goalie Lasse Koskinen‘s glove for his second goal of the game.

Any hope for a Pistols comeback in the rest of the game was snuffed out by a parade of penalties.  Hamilton went to the box three times in the third period, preventing them from establishing any sort of rhythm or sustained pressure.  As the final horn sounded, the Igloos gathered in a knot and traded head bumps while the crowd cheered with relief.

So the Igloos managed to prevent the sweep.  Their next goal: a win in Game 5 to keep Hamilton from celebrating on Anchorage’s ice.  “I said yesterday that we’re taking these one at a time,” said Castor.  “We got this one, and now we need to come out tomorrow and get the next one.”

The Pistols, meanwhile, remained confident that they will ultimately prevail.  “We never expected a sweep,” said coach Keith Shields.  “Anchorage is too good and talented a team to go down without a fight.  But if we keep playing the way we’ve been playing, we’ll be in good shape.”

Continue reading “2020 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2020 SHL Finals – Game 3

HAMILTON PISTOLS 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

(Hamilton leads series, 3-0)

Facing a must-win Game 3, the Anchorage Igloos improved in a number of critical ways over the first two games.  With the home crowd at Arctic Circle Arena behind them, they managed to slow down the Hamilton Pistols at least a bit, and prevented them from shooting at will.  Goalie Ty Worthington upped his game after a couple of rocky starts.  The Igloos power play, which had come up dry in the first two games, finally struck pay dirt – twice, even.  But even with all those improvements, the Igloos still came up short, as the Pistols came from behind to claim a 3-2 win and move to the brink of claiming their second straight title.

“We felt like we did everything we needed to do in order to win,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “But we didn’t win.  That’s pretty frustrating.”

Today’s game didn’t unfold at the same full-tilt pace at the last two, but the Igloos didn’t take long to take the lead.  Pistols C Marco Venezio wound up in the penalty box for elbowing just 28 seconds into the game, and RW Jean Pierre Fleury scored on the ensuing power play.  Better still, the Igloos were able to make that goal stand up – and keep Hamilton off the board for the rest of the first period and much of the second.  Unfortunately, they were unable to add to their lead despite numerous opportunities.

“The first half of the game, we were getting the better end of the play,” said Anchorage coach Sam Castor.  “But we really should have been up 2-0 or 3-0 at that point, not 1-0.  We were taking the first shot instead of the best shot on too many occasions.”

As a result, when Pistols C Calvin Frye redirected a shot into the upper right corner of the net, that wound up tying the score and deflating the crowd.  Hamilton coach Keith Shields felt that Frye’s goal was critical to Hamilton’s eventual victory.

“Before that point, we’d had some great shots, but it seemed like we weren’t ever going to get anything through,” said Shields.  “But then Cal scored, and that got things going for us.”

In the first minute of the third period, the Igloos got the fans back into the game, as D Tony Citrone fired it home to give Anchorage the lead back.  But a few short minutes later, Hamilton was able to shift the game’s momentum in their favor, this time for good.

Unsurprisingly, it was team leader Steven Alexander who was responsible for the Pistols’ tying goal.  It came on an extended shift in the offensive zone, one that Alexander himself helped to extend by chasing down a loose puck just before it crossed the blue line.  After several tic-tac-toe passes, the puck wound back up on Alexander’s stick, and he ripped a slapshot so powerful that it seemed to go through Worthington and into the net.

“That was a textbook shift for us, and for Alex to end it with a goal was perfect,” said Shields.  “If you want to know what Pistols hockey at its best is all about, just watch that shift.”

It was not Alexander, however, who scored the winning goal.  Instead, it was LW Jamie Campbell, the young winger who struggled through a mediocre season but has come to life in the postseason skating on the second line.  On this play, Campbell parked himself in front of the Anchorage net and would not allow himself to be dislodged, despite vigorous hacking and whacking from a couple of Igloos.  He took Worthington’s eyes away on a shot from the point by D Burt Hampton, and so the netminder was helpless when Campbell tipped the shot just inside the post.

“I’m finally contributing the way I feel like I should,” said Campbell.  “It’s about time.”

The Igloos tried desperately to find the tying goal, firing 19 shots in the third period (and 45 for the game).  But they couldn’t get another one past Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen.  Shields lavished praise on his goalie after the game.

“Koski’s definitely been under fire in this series,” said the coach, “and he’s come through clean every time.  He’s been Johnny on the spot for us every time.  Heck of a goalie!”

Meanwhile, Worthington and the Igloos sat at a quiet locker room and pondered the uncomfortable truth.  They’d played their best game of the series, and it still hadn’t been enough.  One more loss and their season will come to an end.

In spite of that, Anchorage remains confident of a comeback.  “We’ve got to win four in a row,” said Frost.  “We’ve done that plenty of times this year.  We can do it again.”

Castor, though, doesn’t want his team looking that far ahead.  “We just need to take it one game at a time,” the coach said.  “Let’s win tomorrow and go from there.”

Continue reading “2020 SHL Finals – Game 3”