Several New Faces Among SHL Annual Awards

At the SHL’s fourth annual awards banquet, Commissioner Perry Mitchell handed out trophies honoring the league’s best players and coaches.  As usual, the awards were chosen based on votes from SHL players, coaches, and media.

The commissioner also took a moment to reflect on how the league has grown and changed over the five seasons under his leadership.  “The SHL has proven itself over the last five years,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  “We’ve had our challenges and bumps in the road, but we’re established now and we’re here to stay. And we’ve got a lot of exciting young players coming along the way.” As if to underline Mitchell’s words, this year’s crop included a number of first-time winners.

The 2019 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: LW Steven Alexander, Hamilton Pistols

There was little question who would receive the MVP honor for 2019.  Alexander and the Pistols went on a remarkable journey this season.  Early in the season, the star winger spent a night in jail with several teammates after his 26th birthday celebration ended in a barfight.  Alexander wound up stumbling through an underwhelming first half.

Just before the All-Star break, though, he got married in a ceremony at the Pistols’ arena.  Married life seemed to spark a change in Alexander; he scored 38 of his 52 goals and recorded 70 of his 100 points in a record-setting second half.  With their star leading the way, Hamilton surged to their second playoff berth.  They ultimately capped off their run by winning their first championship.

“Alex is a heart-and-soul player,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “He plays every game like it could be his last, and he always wants to be the first one over the wall when we need a hero.  We never would have won this championship without him leading the way.”

Other MVP finalists included Alexander’s teammate Calvin Frye, Seattle’s Vince Mango, and Hershey’s Justin Valentine.

Rookie of the Year: D Bastien Chouinard, Kansas City Smoke

In a surprising upset, Chouinard received the Rookie of the Year nod over C Alain Beauchesne of the Boston Badgers.  Ironically, the two of them have been competing for a long time: the 20-year-old Chouinard and the 21-year-old Beauchesne both grew up near Montreal, and they often played against each other in youth leagues around Quebec.

“I think this is the first team I ever beat him at anything,” quipped Chouinard.

The young blueliner was chosen third overall by the Smoke in this year’s draft, and he proved to be one of the few bright spots in a tough year in KC.  Chouinard had a better-than-expected year offensively, notching 38 points (5 goals, 33 assists).  But it was his ferocious, hard-hitting defensive work that earned the most notice.  Chouinard, nicknamed “Bastard” for his relentless and unforgiving style, led all SHL players with 119 penalty minutes on the season.

“We didn’t have a lot to feel good about this season,” said Smoke coach Randy Bergner, “but watching Bastien thrive has been a real treat.  If he can build on what he showed us this season, and some of the other guys can do the same, I might not need to chug Pepto-Bismol every night next season.”

Chouinard got the nod over Beauchesne, Anchorage’s Rudolf Kerasov, Saskatchewan’s Blake Blacklett, and Dakota’s Calle Markstrom.

Coach of the Year: Harold Engellund, Seattle Sailors

2019 marked the Sailors’ final season in Seattle, but they went out on a high note: they were the most improved team since 2018 (going from 58 points to 80) despite featuring a roster little different from the previous year, and securing their first-ever trip to the postseason.  The voters honored the Sailors’ improvement by selecting Engellund as Coach of the Year.  For the veteran bench boss, who endured a rocky tenure in Dakota before coming to the Pacific Northwest, the award represents sweet redemption.

“Coach Engellund deserves this award more than anyone,” said Sailors RW Vince Mango.  “He’s taken a ragtag group of individual talents and molded us into a team.  He even got me to start passing, which is an accomplishment all its own.”

Engellund was chosen over Hamilton’s Keith Shields, Hershey’s Chip Barber, and Anchorage’s Sam Castor to receive the award.

Sharp Shooter Award: RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson, New York Night

The Sharp Shooter Award is one of two awards that is not given out base on the outcome of a vote.  Instead, the honor is awarded to the player who finishes the season with the highest goal total.  This year, the award went to Nelson, who finished the 2019 season with 54 goals, placing him two ahead of Hamilton’s Alexander and Frye.

It’s the first time that the high-scoring winger has captured the award, and the second time that a Night player has won (C Brock Manning earned the honor in 2016).  This award received a tepid reaction, as Nelson is not widely popular in league circles.

“I know nobody wanted me to win, because they can’t acknowledge my greatness,” said Nelson.  “But the numbers don’t lie.  And they can boo me all they want, but they can’t deny that I’m an award winner, yo. Call me whatever you want, but you got to bend the knee.”

Commissioner’s Trophy: LW Steven Alexander, Hamilton Pistols and LW Chase Winchester, New York Night

Similar to the Sharp Shooter Award, the Commissioner’s Trophy is not awarded based on the result of a vote.  Instead, the award goes to the player who finishes with the highest point total.  For the first time ever, this award was split between two players.

Alexander, whose eventful season was detailed above, finished with a career high in assists (48), which allowed him to reach the century mark in points for the first time his career.  The Commissioner’s Trophy joins the MVP and the Vandy on Alexander’s suddenly crowded award shelf.

“I love the fact that he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves,” said Pistols RW Claude Lafayette of his teammate and longtime friend.  “He never stops working, and he earned this.”

Winchester, meanwhile, remains one of the league’s top passers.  Thanks to a strong offensive year from linemates Nelson and Brock Manning, Winchester managed to record a league-leading 86 assists, which made up the bulk of his 100 points on the season.  This is his second Commissioner’s Trophy; he also won it three years ago.

“Chase doesn’t get a lot of play when we’re talking about the top players in the league, and that’s not fair,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “Maybe when we win the Vandy next year, he’ll finally get the respect he deserves.  Probably not, though.”

Goalie of the Year: Dirk Lundquist, Michigan Gray Wolves

Last season, this award went to Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen in a stunning upset.  This time, however, the award went to the only other person ever to win it: Lundquist.  The Wolves had a very disappointing season, finishing fourth in the West, but Lundquist put up his usual excellent numbers.  The goalie known as “The Bear” went 29-19-6 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.  Despite Michigan’s subpar performance, Lundquist tied for the league lead in wins, and as usual he led in GAA and save percentage.

“We’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do after the season we had,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “But that’s not true for The Bear.  He’s been Mr. Reliable time and again, and he saved our bacon in plenty of games we didn’t deserve to win.”

Other finalists for the award included Tiktuunen, Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen, and Anchorage’s Ty Worthington.

Defenseman of the Year: Clayton Risch, Hamilton Pistols

Voting for this award was surprisingly scattered.  Michigan’s top defensemen, Fritz Kronstein and Max Madison, have won the last two times, but the Wolves’ disappointing season knocked them out of contention.  Some thought that Hershey’s Reese Milton – a regular runner-up for this award – might finally break through.

Instead, the award went to Hamilton’s Risch, who beat Milton in a close contest.  The voting took place before the playoffs, so the Pistols’ title was not taken into consideration.  It’s believed that Risch struck voters as a balanced two-way player, providing offense (7 goals, 34 assists) and defense (72 penalty minutes, +20 rating, and a highlight reel full of devastating checks) in equal measure.

“It’s nice to see Crusher get some love,” said Shields, using Risch’s nickname.  “He’s a real quality two-way player, and he’s been an underrated factor in our success.”

In addition to Milton, other finalists included Seattle’s Benny Lambert, Saskatchewan’s Wyatt Barnes, and Chouinard.

2019 SHL Finals – Game 6

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3

(Hamilton wins, 4-2)

In the locker room before the third period of today’s Game 6, Hamilton Pistols coach Keith Shields looked for the right words to inspire his struggling team.  After forty minutes of play, the defending champions Anchorage Igloos led the Pistols 3-1.  The Igloos were just a period away from erasing Hamilton’s 3-1 series lead in the SHL Finals, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Anchorage tomorrow.  The momentum was firmly on the side of the champs, and the Pistols’ hopes for the Vandy were rapidly slipping away.

“I knew I didn’t want it to go to seven,” said Shields.  “I knew our best chance to win was today, even having to come from behind.”

And so the coach, who is a devout Christian, talked to his players about the story of David and Goliath.  “The Israelites were saved because one man was brave enough to take on this giant on the other side,” the coach said.  “And with God’s strength behind him, David killed Goliath.  Who among you is brave enough to defeat our enemy?  If that’s you, step forward like David did.”

One by one, the Pistols stepped forward.  Then they went out and staged the biggest comeback in Finals history, scoring four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 win and clinch their first-ever SHL title.

The first player to answer Shields’ challenge was, unsurprisingly, LW Steven Alexander.  The winger has been Hamilton’s unquestioned leader since the beginning, a brave and ambitious player who discovered a new level to his game after tying the knot in mid-season.  He got the team going in the right direction right from the opening faceoff of the third, marching down the ice and scoring just 16 seconds into the frame.

“Coach Shields had gotten us fired up with his speech, but someone needed to get our comeback started,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “And of course it was Alex.  That guy knows no fear.”

Alexander got things rolling, but Hamilton needed another hero.  Up stepped one of their oldest players.  33-year-old RW Kenny Patterson considered retiring after last season, before signing an extension with the Pistols to fill a hole on the second line.  And when his team needed him most today, he came through with the tying and (ultimately) winning goals.

The tying tally came on a power play, as Igloos D Tony Citrone was penalized for tripping.  Patterson stationed himself in front of the Anchorage net, absorbing hacks and slashes from defenders.  And when D Raymond Smyth fired a shot toward the net, Patterson deflected it just beyond the reach of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington and just under the crossbar.

The go-ahead goal came on a similar tip play on 5-on-5 just over two minutes after the previous one.  This time, it was D Clayton Risch firing from the blue line while Patterson stood in the slot.  The puck bounced off Patterson’s stick and knuckled past a stunned Worthington.  The Igloos protested, arguing that Patterson’s stick had been above the crossbar when it struck the puck.  Upon review, though, it was deemed a good goal.  The fans at Arctic Circle Arena booed, while the Igloos sagged on the bench.

“They couldn’t believe it,” Patterson said.  “They’d been so sure they had this one in the bag, and then we came back and they didn’t know what to do.”

RW Claude Lafayette has been a close friend of Alexander’s since childhood and shares a line with the star.  So it only seems fitting that he gave Hamilton an insurance goal with less than seven minutes left, finishing off an odd-man rush that Alexander started.  The old friends wrapped each other in an embrace and screamed in celebration, while the crowd fell into a stunned silence.

The Igloos tried to mount a rally, but the fired-up Pistols overwhelmed them.  Anchorage’s final push was thwarted when LW Jerry Koons took an ill-timed tripping penalty with three minutes remaining.  A frustrated Koons slammed his stick against the glass and buried his head in his hands as he sat in the sin bin.

“I feel like I cost us the championship,” said Koons.  “I took a stupid, stupid penalty at the worst possible time.”

As the final horn sounded, the Pistols raced toward their blue line to celebrate.  They pounded each other on the back and shouted, “We won, we won, we won!  We won!”  When Commissioner Perry Mitchell presented them with the Vandy, Alexander took a long lap around the ice, tears streaming down his cheeks as he contemplated the team’s accomplishment.

“I have lived to see our glory!” said Alexander in the locker room, as his teammates poured beer and champagne over his head.  “It’s been an amazing year for me, getting married and winning the title, and this is a new high.  When our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”

Shields ran around the locker room, hugging his players and doing his best to dodge the beer showers.  “Goliath is dead!” shouted the coach. “With our faith and our bravery, we stood up against our mightiest opponent and we took him down.  All hail the heroes!”

A somber Sam Castor, coach of the Igloos, congratulated the victorious Pistols.  “Make no mistake, they earned this title,” said Castor.  “It was a hard-fought series, but they were the better team in the end.  They deserve this.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 5

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2, HAMILTON PISTOLS 1

(Hamilton leads, 3-2)

After yesterday’s 3-2 loss, the Anchorage Igloos found themselves just one game away from defeat in the SHL Finals, facing a must-win Game 5 in enemy territory.  But the Igloos didn’t get to be two-time SHL champions without learning to overcome adversity.  So before the game, coach Sam Castor delivered a simple message to his players: “You can’t lose this one,” Castor said.  “So don’t.”

The Igloos heeded their coach’s words, seizing the lead early and hanging on for a 2-1 win over the Hamilton Pistols, keeping their Vandy hopes alive.

“We knew we weren’t going down without a fight,” said C Jake Frost.  “We’re too good a team to lose in five, so we weren’t about to let that happen.”

In Game 4, Anchorage allowed Hamilton to get out to a 3-0 lead before mounting a rally that wound up falling short.  With that in mind, the Igloos were determined to score first this time.  “If you get the first goal, especially if you get it early, you can dictate the terms of the game,” said D Ted Keefe.  “And that’s what we wanted to do.”

The boys in baby blue pulled that off a little over three minutes into the game when C Florian Theroux, who was scratched from Game 4 due to illness, deflected a shot from Keefe over the catching glove of Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen.

“This was a happy day for me,” said Theroux.  “Yesterday, I was throwing up my guts.  Today, I was a hero.”

Anchorage may have struck first, but their advantage was short-lived.  Less than two minutes after taking the lead, the Igloos went a man down when D Dave Frederick received a minor for holding the stick.  On the ensuing power play, D Albie Glasco tied it up on a severe-angle shot that banked off the shoulder of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington.

“I was just trying to see if I could get a juicy rebound,” Glasco said.  “I didn’t think there was any chance it was going to go in.”

The Igloos were eager to retake the lead before the end of the first.  They did, but only by the skin of their teeth.  In the waning seconds of the periods, Anchorage carried the puck into the offensive zone.  It seemed to disappear in a mass of bodies in front of Hamilton’s net.  Finally, the puck wound up in the net, seemingly at the same time at the horn ending the period.  After review, it was determined that the puck crossed the line before the horn, giving Anchorage its sought-after lead.  The goal was credited to D Olaf Martinsson.

“Going into the locker room with the lead, that was huge,” said Frost.  “Our confidence was through the roof.”

In the second period, Anchorage borrowed a page from Hamilton’s Game 4 playbook, slowing the pace and bogging down the Pistols’ drives in the neutral zone.  It wasn’t the prettiest twenty minutes of hockey, but it was effective, as Hamilton couldn’t mount any serious scoring threats.  The Igloos missed a chance to add to their lead in the closing minutes of the period when Frost fired a shot that beat Koskinen but hit the right post.

Going into the third period, the Pistols were determined to break the Igloos’ press and turn up the pace.  “We weren’t going to let them rock us to sleep for forty minutes with a one-goal lead,” said D Raymond Smyth.

The Pistols succeeded in generating some offensive pressure with more aggressive breakouts and long passes designed to break the Anchorage neutral-zone trap.  But they ran into one big problem: Worthington.  The Anchorage goalie was at his best, his razor-sharp reflexes anticipating the Pistols’ every move.  He gobbled up one puck after another, snapping them out of the air with his glove or smothering them beneath his pads.

Hamilton’s best chance came in the middle of the period, when Igloos D Willy Calligan was sent off for slashing.  The Pistols got into their power-play setup, and LW Steven Alexander wound up for a slapshot.  Instead of shooting, he fired a pass to RW Claude Lafayette, catching Worthington out of position.  Lafayette shot at what he thought was a wide-open net… only for the Igloos netminder to come flying over and deflect the shot with his stick.

“I have no idea how he got over so fast,” said Lafayette.  “He must have a time machine.”

The Pistols had a couple more quality chances after that, but Worthington held his ground and preserved the win.  The series now shifts back to Arctic Circle Arena in Anchorage, where the champs need to win both games to defend their title. “We’ll have our fans and we have the experience,” said Frost.  “I like our chances.”

Alexander, for his part, seems unconcerned about the shift in venue.  “We already beat them once in their barn,” the feisty winger said.  “We can do it again.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 5”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 4

HAMILTON PISTOLS 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2

(Hamilton leads, 3-1)

The first three games of the 2019 SHL Finals have been tense, back-and-forth affairs, with neither team leading by more than one goal at any point.  Coming into today’s pivotal Game 4, both the hometown Hamilton Pistols and the defending champion Anchorage Igloos were looking for a decisive victory, one that might swing the momentum of the series firmly in their favor.

As it turned out, it was the Pistols who made the strong statement, running out to a 3-0 lead in the first half of the contest.  They then withstood a late Anchorage rally to hold on for a 3-2 win, moving themselves within a game of their first-ever Vandy.

“We’re rising up, boys!” hollered Pistols LW Steven Alexander in a jubilant postgame locker room.  “One more win, and the world turns upside down!”

Up to this point, the first periods in this series have followed a pattern: a lot of sound and fury, but no goals.  Before today’s game, Hamilton coach Keith Shields suggested to his team to slow down the pace a bit and focus on shot quality over quantity.  He also tinkered with the team’s offensive setup.  Noting that the Igloos were focusing their defense on Alexander, Shields decided to roll his lines and run less of the offense through his star winger.  The changes paid great dividends.

Just over two minutes in the game, with the third line on the ice, LW Magnus Gunnarson received a perfect pass from C Henry Constantine in the slot, and went top-shelf for a goal.  It’s the first time in the series that Hamilton has scored first, and it got the crowd at Gunpowder Armory fired up early.

“We’ve been getting traffic in the home plate area, and it’s been paying off for us,” said Gunnarson.

Shortly after the midway point of the first, the Pistols’ top line set up for an extended shift in Anchorage’s end.  C Calvin Frye found Alexander in his preferred shooting spot.  Alexander wound up for a slapshot, and Igloos goalie Ty Worthington committed to block it.  But Alexander instead fired a pass to teammate Claude Lafayette, who was skating hard toward the net.  Lafayette easily tucked the puck home over a sprawling Worthington to give Hamilton a 2-0 lead.

The Igloos had opportunities to cut into the lead late in the period thanks to a flurry of Pistols penalties, but they couldn’t convert, and went into the locker room down by a pair.  Coach Sam Castor laid into the champs, demanding to see more urgency.

“We let [the Pistols] get the jump on us, and we weren’t responding,” said Castor.  “That’s not like us.”

The Igloos came out with more energy in the second half, but they frequently ran into a brick wall at the blue line, courtesy of the Pistols’ rugged defensive corps.  “They did a really good job keeping us from getting established on offense,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “We just couldn’t get any momentum.”

A little more than 5 minutes into the period, the Pistols’ top line broke out on an odd-man rush.  Frye fed it to Alexander, who again wound up for a shot.  Worthington prepared to block it, only to see Alexander toss it back to D Raymond Smyth, who beat Worthington glove-side to make it a 3-0 game.  As Smyth circled back for hugs and backslaps from his teammates, the crowd threatened to tear the roof off with their jubilation.

The Igloos refused to give in, however, and slowly fought back with the help of some ill-timed Pistol penalties.  About four minutes after Smyth’s goal, RW Kenny Patterson was assessed with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for smacking the puck into the stands to protest an offside call.  With about 20 seconds left on the power play, Igloos RW Ben Summers got free in front of the net and jammed the puck just inside the post to get his team on the board.

In the third period, Frye took another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  Anchorage kept the puck in the offensive zone, and cashed in during the waning seconds of the power play with a goal from D Ted Keefe.  The Igloos celebrated as an uneasy buzz ran through the stands.

With just over three minutes left in regulation, Anchorage had a golden chance to tie the game when Pistols D Clayton Risch was whistled for spearing. “We knew we really had to buckle down and stop them at all costs,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “We could not let a stray shot give us away.”

So Anchorage took their shots, and Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen and the penalty kill turned them away.  And then, 1:17 into the power play, Igloos D Olaf Martinsson committed a cross-checking penalty, wiping away the man advantage and the visitors’ hopes for victory.

In the losing locker room, the Igloos were grim but determined.  “Well, we used up all of our rope,” C Jake Frost said.  “Now the only thing we can do is go win three in a row.  So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 3

HAMILTON PISTOLS 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2 (OVERTIME)

(Hamilton leads, 2-1)

Through the first three games, the 2019 SHL Finals have a distinctive rhythm.  There’s a fast-paced first period, in which the Anchorage Igloos and Hamilton Pistols fire shots by the bucketload but don’t score.  The action settles down somewhat in the second and third, as the teams trade goals (with Anchorage drawing first blood) as well as near-misses.  In the end, one team wins by a single goal; often, regulation isn’t enough to settle matters.

The venue shifted for Game 3 from Anchorage’s Arctic Circle Arena to Hamilton’s Gunpowder Armory.  But the teams followed the familiar script, all the way to Eddie Costello’s overtime goal that gave the Pistols a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 series lead.

“We’re going toe-to-toe with the defending champs and we’re pulling out wins,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “That tells you a lot about the strength and fearlessness of the guys in this locker room.”

The fans at Gunpowder Armory are well-known for making a lot of noise, especially in the postseason.  During the division series, the Hershey Bliss let the crowd noise get in their heads, and they went on to lose the series.  The Igloos said that the racket wouldn’t bother them, and that proved to be true.  They came out of the gate just as fast and trigger-happy as they had at home, outshooting the Pistols 17-13 in the first period.  But Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen turned aside all of the Igloos attempts, just as Anchorage’s Ty Worthington did for the baker’s dozen of Hamilton shots.

Then came the second period, and the scoring began.  Anchorage went a man to the good just 22 seconds into the period when Pistols D Hercules Mulligan sent the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty.  LW Les Collins proceeded to make the Pistols pay, firing a low hard shot that Koskinen couldn’t quite pick up.

Hamilton didn’t strike back quite as quickly as they had in earlier games.  But just over four minutes after Collins’ tally, LW Jamie Campbell tied things up by netting a wraparound shot before Worthington could seal off the post.  The Igloos had several opportunities to retake the lead courtesy of three Pistols penalties later in the period, but they couldn’t convert and the period ended in a 1-1 tie.

In each of the first two games, the Pistols scored quickly in the third period.  This game followed that pattern, as C Calvin Frye put one in before the period was two minutes old, giving Hamilton its first lead of the game.  The old building rattled as the fans roared, clapped, and stomped in salute of their heroes.

“Honestly, it felt like the whole place was going to shake itself apart,” said Igloos C Nile Bernard.  “We could feel the movement on the bench, and I was kind of eyeing the rafters like, ‘Uh, guys, is it safe…?’”

Anchorage, though, didn’t let the deficit or the screaming fans or the rumbling arena bother them.  They focused on keeping the Pistols from adding to their lead, while trying to win more zone time on offense.  This effort paid off just before the midpoint of the period, as C Jake Frost received a perfect one-touch pass from RW Nicklas Ericsson and ripped home a shot before Koskinen could react, tying it up at 2 apiece.

“That top line of [Anchorage’s] is just sick,” said Mulligan.  “You know they’re going to feed it to Frost if they can, but then they do and you can’t stop it.  It’s a lot like Alex [Steven Alexander] and our top line that way.”

Anchorage took a couple of minor penalties in the back half of the third period, which gave Hamilton golden opportunities for a go-ahead goal.  They nearly had one in the final minute of the game, when Alexander fired a shot that Worthington got a piece of but couldn’t stop completely.  The puck trickled toward the goal line and nearly over it, but D Olaf Martinsson swooped in and whacked it away.  The Pistols asked for a replay review, and it was determine that the puck had gone partway over the line but not completely.  No goal, and on to overtime.

The extra session started out a bit slowly, as both teams looked a bit tired and sluggish.  The action frequently bogged down in the neutral zone.  But a little past the two-minute mark, RW Ben Summers slipped on a soft patch of ice while crossing over the red line and went down, losing control of the puck.  Pistols D Raymond Smyth won a race to the puck, started down the ice, then found Costello.

The ex-Galaxy center was the overtime hero of the series-clinching Game 4 against Hershey, and he was ready to do it again.  He skated hard toward the net, getting behind the defense.  He deked a bit with the puck, trying to get Worthington out of position.  Then he went shortside over Worthington’s outstretched stick for the game-winning goal.

“Easy Eddie does it again!” said Shields with a grin.  “I love that guy.  He’s knows how to get it done with style.”

Igloos coach Sam Castor was generally pleased with his team’s effort, even in a losing cause.  “Every game in this series so far has basically been dead even,” Castor said.

The coach added, however, that he wanted to see his team win Game 4.  “Getting back to even and getting the home-ice advantage back, that’s crucial,” Castor said.  “I’m not calling it a must-win, but you don’t want to go down 3-1.  We don’t want to be in that hole.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 3”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 2

HAMILTON PISTOLS 2, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 1

(Series ties, 1-1)

This year’s SHL Finals are shaping up to be a heavyweight title fight.  In Game 1, the champion Anchorage Igloos won on points, overcoming a flurry of jabs from the challenger Hamilton Pistols before landing a knockdown punch in overtime.  In today’s Game 2, the challenger got up off the canvas and threw a haymaker at the champ, as the Pistols stole home-ice advantage with a series-tying come-from-behind 2-1 win.

“It’s a real series now!” crowed Pistols LW Steven Alexander after the win.  “We’ve shown that we can win.  History has its eyes on us!”

The early stages of this game strongly resembled Game 1.  Both teams came out flying with a ton of energy, and the first period was once again a shooting gallery, with Anchorage firing 17 shots on net and Hamilton taking 14.  Just like yesterday, though, both goalies withstood the barrage, and the period ended in a scoreless tie.  And just like yesterday, Igloos coach Sam Castor admonished his team between period to slow the tempo a bit.

“We’ve been coming out a bit hot in these games,” said Castor.  “I told them to play within themselves, and not to let the game get out of control.

Anchorage once again heeded their coach’s instructions, and the game’s pace cooled in the second.  The Igloos spent a considerable amount of time on the penalty kill in the first half of the period thanks to back-to-back infractions by D Olaf Martinsson and LW Waldo Miranda, but they successfully squelched the Pistols’ power play both times.

Later in the period, Hamilton went a man down as RW Kenny Patterson served a double minor for spearing.  The Igloos took advantage, as RW Nicklas Ericsson picked off a failed Hamilton clearing attempt and fed D Rudolf Kerasov, who fired a slapshot that deflected off the stick of a Pistols player and into the net.  Just as in Game 1, the Igloos struck first… and the champs assumed that meant another win was on the way.

“I think we got a little complacent,” admitted C Jake Frost.  “We felt like, when push came to shove, we’d take care of business.”

In another Game 1 parallel, the Pistols answered the Igloos’ opening goal with one of their own.  With three minutes left in the second, Alexander fired a slapshot that ticked off the blocker of Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington and bounced off the crossbar before going in.

If this game was going to follow the Game 1 script, the Igloos would need to regain the lead before the end of the second.  They couldn’t get a sustained attack going before the horn sounded, though, and the game remained deadlocked after forty minutes.

Going into the third, the Pistols felt a rising confidence.  “We felt like if we could strike quickly, we could put [the Igloos] on the defensive for a change,” said RW Claude Lafayette.  “If we could grab the momentum, we felt like we’d win it.”

Hamilton got the quick strike they were looking for, as just 37 seconds into the final stanza, C Calvin Frye beat Worthington with a low liner between the pads.  That gave the Pistols their first lead of the series, and put Anchorage on their heels.

The home team didn’t help their cause when they took three minor penalties in roughly a two-minute span.  The Igloos killed off those penalties successfully, though, and looked to capitalize on the momentum shift.  Unfortunately for them, though, Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen was playing at his best, sealing the posts and denying the Igloos’ best shots.

RW Ben Summers thought he had the tying goal when he caught Koskinen out of position and fired at a wide-open net, but the Finnish netminder flicked out his stick and knocked the blast aside.  Frost also thought he’d even things up when he got loose on a breakaway and fired a high shot, but Koskinen stopped him with a brilliant glove save that left the center staring at the rafters.

“I have to tip my cap to Lasse,” said Frost.  “He really stood on his head today.”

Pistols coach Keith Shields lavished praise on his goalie, who stopped 38 shots in today’s game.  “Lasse’s saved our bacon plenty of times this season, and he did it again today.  Thank God we’ve got him on our side.”

The series now shifts to Hamilton’s famously noisy Gunpowder Armory for the next three games.  The din has been known to rattle visiting teams, but Castor isn’t worried.  “Our guys have the experience, and they’re got to let a noisy crowd shake them,” said the Igloos coach.

Castor does have a concern, however: he wants his team to cut down on the penalties.  Anchorage has committed 13 infractions in the first two games.  “When we spend that much time in the penalty box, we’re playing with one hand tied behind our back,” said Castor.  “It’s sloppy, and Hamilton’s too good for us to give them advantages like that.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 2”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 1

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3, HAMILTON PISTOLS 2 (OVERTIME)

(Anchorage leads, 1-0)

If Game 1 sets the tone for the 2019 SHL Finals, fans are in for a treat.  The Anchorage Igloos and Hamilton Pistols combined to give fans a fast-paced, highly-skilled, closely-contested thrill ride.  The game was so closely contested, in fact, that it couldn’t be resolved in regulation.  But in the end, C Jake Frost and the Igloos sent the fans at Arctic Circle Arena home happy with a 3-2 overtime win.

“This was a hockey master class,” said Frost.  “Both teams were really on their toes and playing at a really, really high level.  This series is gonna be lit.”

The energy on both sides was palpable even before the game started.  As the national anthems played, players on both teams bounced up and down on their skates, like bulls waiting for the gate to open.  It was little surprise that the Pistols, making their first Finals appearance, would be so fired up.  But the champion Igloos were just as hyped.

That energy expressed itself in a frenetic first period.  No one scored in the first, but not for a lack of trying: the teams combined to unleash 33 shots in the period, with Anchorage taking 20 of them.  Igloos coach Sam Castor felt that the action was a little too frenzied, and cautioned his team between periods to moderate their pace a bit.

“I know our guys were trying to take the early lead and make a statement,” Castor said, “but the game was turning into a track meet, and we were flinging shots at the net as soon as we got the puck into their zone.  I told them to be a little more deliberate and make our shots count.”

The first-period sugar high wore off in the second, and the game settled into a still-swift but reasonable tempo.  It didn’t take the Igloos long to get their much-desired lead, as LW Les Collins scored on a slapshot from the slot just over a minute into the frame.

“I saw just enough daylight for the shot, so I took it,” said Collins.

A couple minutes afterward, though, Collins headed to the sin bin on a high-sticking call.  Hamilton LW Steven Alexander wasted no time banging home a slapper of his own to tie the score.

“We know that if we can get the puck on Alex’s stick on the PP, good things will happen,” said C Calvin Frye.

The tie lasted barely more than 90 seconds before rookie Igloos LW Jean Pierre Fleury redirected a shot over the right pad of Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen to give the home team a 2-1 lead.  The champs’ confidence only grew as they killed off three additional penalties in the period.  The Igloos adjusted their penalty-kill approach to overload toward Alexander, and the Pistols were unable to make them pay.

After two periods, the momentum seemed firmly in Anchorage’s corner, as they held onto their one-goal lead.  But less than a minute into the frame, Collins was whistled for another penalty, this time for cross-checking.  On the ensuing faceoff, Hamilton fed the puck to Alexander, as expected.  But the star winger faked a shot, then slung a pass to D Clayton Risch, who fired it to fellow blueliner Hercules Mulligan.  Mulligan then fired the shot past Igloos netminder Ty Worthington, who never seemed to see it.  Tie game.

Collins, frustrated at taking the penalties that allowed Hamilton to score both their goals, was now fiercely determined to make up for it with another goal of his own.  He got a chance midway through the period, when Koskinen bit on a fake slapper from C Nile Bernard, and Collins found himself with the puck and a yawning net.  Unfortunately, he was so wound up that he fired the shot high over the crossbar.  Collins then skated back to the bench and smashed his stick to bits, a rare display of emotion for the reserved forward.

The third period featured chances for both teams, but both Koskinen and Worthington made sensational stops to keep things deadlocked through the end of regulation.

Going into overtime, the Igloos were determined to take the win.  “We weren’t about to let [the Pistols] get the jump on us on our ice,” said Frost.

In the extra session, Anchorage was able to control the play far better than they had in regulation.  They repeatedly denied Hamilton opportunities to set up on offense, and kept most of the action in the other end.  Finally, a bit over two minutes in, Frost and LW Jerry Koons broke out on a 2-on-1, which Koons finished by going top-shelf over Koskinen’s right shoulder.

“Winning the first one, that’s big for us,” said Koons.  “But this is going to be a long series, and we’re going to have to stay sharp.  That’s a talented bunch on the other side, that’s for sure.”

Pistols coach Keith Shields was encouraged by his team’s performance, loss notwithstanding.  “We showed that we can go toe to toe with those guys,” Shields said.  “The game could have gone either way.  I believe we sent them a message that we need to be taken seriously.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 1”