Wolves Fall Out of First, Wright Warns Against Complacency

Four weeks ago, the Michigan Gray Wolves looked unbeatable.  Literally.  Twelve games into the season, they had yet to lose (or tie) once.  It looked as though the Western title was all but assured, and the rest of the season would be a race for second place.

What a difference a month makes.  Since their 12-0-0 start, Michigan has stumbled to a 4-7-5 record.  This week, they lost three games in a row for the first time in three years, and they ended the week in second place for the first time in almost a season and a half.  The team’s performance was so concerning that coach Ron Wright took the rare step of publicly chiding his team.

The week began on Sunday in Kansas City against the struggling Smoke.  The Wolves fell behind 2-0 before rallying with a pair of goals in the third period to salvage a tie.  After the game, the players expressed disappointment in their performance.  “We definitely didn’t play our best hockey today,” said D Max Madison.  Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, it would be Michigan’s best performance of the week.

On Tuesday, they headed west to take on their strongest challenger to date, the Seattle Sailors.  The Wolves were thoroughly outplayed by their rivals.  Seattle outshot Michigan 17-7 in the first period, setting the tone for the contest.  Although netminder Dirk Lundquist stopped all 17 to keep it scoreless, the dam burst in the second as the Sailors scored three times.  In the end, the Wolves were outshot 37-23 and outscored 4-0.

The Wolves then flew coast-to-coast for an interdivision game against the New York Night on Thursday.  The Night have scuffled recently, but the Wolves found no reprieve in the Big Apple.  New York dictated the tempo of play, and although Michigan outshot them 37-36, goalie Jesse Clarkson stymied them for a second straight shutout, 3-0.

On Saturday, the Wolves showed up at Centre Citadelle to face the Quebec Tigres.  The Tigres are built in the same deliberate, defense-first mold as the Wolves, and the game was a taut and close affair.  The game remained scoreless until the third period, when Tigres RW Sindri Pentti bulled his way into the slot and jammed a rebound past Lundquist.  Unfortunately for the Wolves, they were unable to come up with the equalizer and lost 1-0.  It was their third defeat in a row and dropped them a point behind Seattle.

Ron Wright

After the Quebec loss, Wright critiqued his squad during his postgame press conference.  “I’m not going to lie, I’m a little concerned by what I’m seeing,” Wright told reporters.  “The first three weeks of the season, they were a thing of beauty.  We were tight, we were winning the battles along the boards, our passes were on target.  But I think we’ve gotten complacent.  We started believing our own headlines a little too much, acting like we’d already clinched.  The intensity level isn’t where it needs to be.”

The coach cautioned that his team can’t take the postseason for granted.  “Last season was basically a cakewalk,” Wright said.  “But this year is different.  Seattle’s playing out of their minds.  Anchorage is coming on strong.  Even Saskatchewan’s right in the mix.  We better not let it slip too far, or we might not even make the playoffs.”

Wright concluded on a hopeful note: “Fortunately, we know we’ve got plenty of talent, and we’ve got time to get things back on track.  And I think we’ll be better off having to work for it, rather than waltzing through the season.  We’ll be sharp, and we’ll need to be if we’re going to win the Vandy.”

The players generally agreed with their coach’s assessment.  “We’re not playing the kind of game we need to play,” said C Warren Marlow.  “I think we’re all pretty disappointed.  But like Coach Wright said, we’ve got time to turn it around.”

Marlow noted one key factor that might explain Michigan’s recent struggles: the absence of C Hunter Bailes, one of Michigan’s top scorers.  Bailes is currently on the disabled list with a lower-body injury, his second ailment of the season.  The Wolves have gone 4-6-1 without Bailes, and 12-1-4 with him in the lineup.  “Once we get Hunter back, we’ll be in a lot better place,” said Marlow.  “He’s the guy we need.”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 6

QUEBEC TIGRES 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 0

In the wake of today’s Game 6, the Anchorage Igloos‘ locker room was completely silent.  After being thoroughly outplayed by the Quebec Tigres and defeated 3-0, after seeing their 3-0 series lead slip away entirely, after seeing the momentum of these Finals shift away from them, the Igloos stared at the floor and tried to process what had happened.  The team that was expecting to be hoisting its second Vandy by now, and the outcome of this game left them reeling.

“What we showed out there tonight isn’t us,” said C Jake Frost.  “If we can’t put out a better effort than that, we should just go give [the Tigres] the trophy right now.”

“We have no one to blame but ourselves for letting it get this far,” said coach Sam Castor.

From the drop of the puck, Anchorage looked confused and ill at ease.  The orange-clad crowd at Centre Citadelle generated a tremendous roar, and it clearly fueled the hometown Tigres.  Quebec completely dominated the first period, outshooting the Igloos 15-5.  “It felt like we were just stuck in quicksand out there,” said LW Jerry Koons.

Given how thoroughly Quebec controlled play in the period, it’s a bit remarkable that they ended the period with only a one-goal lead.  RW Sindri Pentti, who started the game on a hunch by coach Martin Delorme, put the puck in the next only 13 seconds in.  But Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington made a number of acrobatic saves to keep the game from getting out of hand.

Unfortunately, Worthington couldn’t hold the fort forever.  Less than two minutes into the second period, Quebec D Dmitri Kalashnikov blasted a shot from the blue line that bounced off the crossbar.  The Igloos goalie couldn’t corral the rebound, and RW Flint Robinson stuffed it home for a 2-0 lead.

“Steel is great at parking himself in front of the net and cleaning up the garbage,” said Tigres D Ward Jones.  “That’s the kind of rugged, hard-working game that we play.”

Although Quebec didn’t dominate play to quite the same extent in the second, they did manage to control the pace of the game with their suffocating defense.  Once again, they held Anchorage to a mere five shots in the period.

“Ten shots is a slow period for us typically,” said Frost.  “To get only ten shots in two periods?  That’s unheard of for us.  They just completely bottled us up.”

Continuing their pattern of early-period strikes, Tigres C Phil Miller beat Worthington high on the glove side with two minutes gone in the third to give the home team a three-goal lead and send the home crowd into orbit.  “I thought they maybe would cheer enough for the roof to fall down,” said C Drustan Zarkovich.

The desperate Igloos were finally able to generate some offensive momentum in the third; they ripped off 11 shots in the period.  But Quebec goalie Riki Tiktuunen stood firm in the crease, calmly turning aside every blast; when all was said and done, he had stopped 21 shots to complete his second shutout of the series.  Even when Tigres D Laurie Workman committed a pair of late penalties to give unwitting aid to the visitors, the Igloos were unable to convert.

“We didn’t really find our game until the third, and by then it was too late,” said Koons.

Now, if the Igloos are going to claim the Vandy they’d assumed was theirs, they will need to erase the memory of the Tigres’ three-goal third period in Game 5 to secure a come-from-behind win, and they’ll need to forget the way they were manhandled in this game.  “We need to remember that we’re the better team, and we need to play like it,” said Frost.

For their part, the Tigres say they aren’t going to take a Game 7 victory for granted, either.  “Momentum disappears the minute the puck is dropped,” said Delorme.  “Tomorrow is a one-game series, and we must treat it that way.  What came before is only the prologue to the story.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 4

QUEBEC TIGRES 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 0

In a lot of ways, it was a victory for the Quebec Tigres to make it to their first-ever SHL Finals.  For a team that had never even finished above .500 before, having a shot at the Vandy was a remarkable achievement.  However, it look as though their trip to the Finals would be a short one after the Anchorage Igloos won the first three games of the series, including two in Quebec’s building.

Facing a must-win game on enemy ice, the Tigres needed someone to step up and be a hero.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen answered the call in Game 4, turning aside all 39 shots and helping Quebec stave off elimination with a 3-0 win.

“We are up off of the mat,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “And Riki is the one who lifted us up.”

“Riki was the star today,” agreed LW Walt Camernitz, who scored Quebec’s first goal.  “We all played a part, but he was the man today.”

The famously reticent Tiktuunen declined to claim credit for the win, insisting that it was a team effort.  “Everything that we do, win or lose, we do as a team,” the goalie said.  “I cannot win a game on my own.  We had a great defense, and we got excellent goals too.  I was just helping out.”

Through the first couple of periods, Tiktuunen had a point, as Quebec’s defense was in fine form, slowing down and frustrating Anchorage at virtually every turn.  Camernitz jammed home a rebound four minutes into the game, and the Tigres’ defense and Tiktuunen combined to make it stand up.  Through the first two stanzas, Quebec held the Igloos to 20 shots, almost none of them in high-danger areas.

“We were definitely playing our game, moving at a deliberate pace, keeping the crowd out of it,” said Camernitz.

When the score remained 1-0 at the second intermission, it brought back memories of Game 2.  In that contest, Anchorage came from behind and forced an overtime session, which they won.  The Igloos were clearly hoping for another third-period rally, and they managed to slip out of Quebec’s trap and rev up the pace dramatically in the final 20 minutes.  In that period, Tiktuunen really sparkled, making save after save and thwarting the Igloos’ sweep dreams.

In the opening minute of the period, C Jake Frost got loose on a breakaway and fired a laser beam of a shot at the top of the net, but Tiktuunen made a fabulous glove save to shut it down.  Later, on an odd man rush, RW Nicklas Ericsson tried to beat Tiktuunen on the stick-side; the Quebec netminder made a sprawling save, then sprung back up and turned aside a rebound attempt by Frost.  All in all, the Igloos fired 19 shots in the third period alone, and Tiktuunen stopped each one.

“He was practically turning backflips in the crease,” said RW Flint Robinson of his goalie.

With Tiktuunen taking care of business on the defensive end, Quebec was able to take advantage of the faster pace and put the game away.  RW Sindri Pentti, who has been largely invisible in this series, bulled his way in front of the net and deflected a shot from D Doug Wesson over Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington to take a two-goal lead early in the period.  Four and a half minutes later, a neutral-zone turnover by Igloos D Willy Calligan sprung a rare Tigres jailbreak; LW Stellan Fisker finished by slipping the puck between Worthington’s pads to make it 3-0.

Delorme was pleased at the way his team stared down defeat and didn’t blink.  “We showed a lot of heart and courage today, from Riki on down,” the coach said.  “We still have a lengthy road to travel, but this is a strong first step.”

The Igloos, meanwhile, remain confident that they will be able to close out the series quickly.  “I mean, a sweep would have been nice, but we weren’t expecting it,” said Frost.  “We’ve got another one at home, and we can go ahead and wrap this up and embrace the Vandy.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 3

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3, QUEBEC TIGRES 1

After taking the first two games of these Finals on the road, the Anchorage Igloos came home to Arctic Circle Arena with a chance to take a stranglehold on the series.  They did just that, completely muzzling the Quebec Tigres and rolling to a 3-1 victory that puts them one win away from a clean sweep of the playoffs.

“This is a group that’s hungry for the title,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons, who had a goal and an assist in today’s game.  “We’re all driven with one singular purpose: winning the Vandy.”

During the division playoff, the Igloos used frantic, fast-paced first periods to get early leads and set the tones.  The Tigres managed to frustrate those attempts in the first two games, but Anchorage successfully turned up the heat in this game, outshooting Quebec 15-7 in the opening frame.

The Tigres were set back on their heels early thanks to a couple of quick penalties.  They succeeded in killing both of them off, but Anchorage held the puck in the zone after the second penalty ended, pinning Quebec in its own end.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen tried to fall on the puck to give his players a much-needed breather, but was unable to secure it.  The puck wound up on the stick of Koons, who drilled it home over the prone Tiktuunen to draw first blood.

A couple minutes later, the Igloos’ Les Collins and Ben Summers broke out on an odd-man rush.  After a couple back-and-forth passes, Collins fired a shot that tucked under the crossbar to make it 2-0.

“That was important for us, to get a fast start and get the crowd pumped up,” said Summers.

The Igloos managed to kill off a 5-on-3 situation later in the period and went to the locker room with their two-goal edge intact.  Less than a minute into the second, however, Broni Zhlotkin was whistled for diving, and Quebec needed only 10 second of power-play time for Rupert MacDiarmid to convert, cutting the deficit in half.

“This postseason has been a real showcase for Rupert,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “He has been a highlight for us.”

But Anchorage managed to virtually extinguish the Tigres’ offense after that.  Quebec would only record three more shots in the remainder of the period.  The Igloos didn’t accomplish this through trapping and slowing the pace of the game; rather, they maintained possession of the puck and skated past the Tigres.

When Tigres RW Sindri Pentti went off for tripping just before the halfway mark of the period, Igloos RW Nicklas Ericsson ripped a shot between Tiktuunen’s legs to restore Anchorage’s two-goal edge.  For the rest of the second period and all of the third, the Igloos maintained control of the game for long stretches, and the Tigres struggled to gain possession of the puck, much less to get shots off.  Quebec registered only four shots in the third period; for the game, they were outshot 37-15.

“Our guys just put on a clinic out there on playing with a lead,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We just controlled play and dominated the ice, and just slowly sucked the life out of them.”

As for the Tigres, they’ll need to win on enemy ice in Game 4 to avoid being swept, and they’ll need to win four in a row – including the next two in Anchorage – in order to win the series.  “We have dug ourselves into a very deep hole,” said Delorme.  “We have only one choice now if we’re going to win this.  It will not be easy, but it is the task we have left for ourselves.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 3”