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 2

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3

(Hamilton leads series, 2-0)

After dropping the opener of the SHL Finals, the Anchorage Igloos came into today’s Game 2 looking to start strong, cruise to victory, and even the series.  They got the strong start down pat; five minutes into the game, they led 3-1.  But then the spent the remaining 55 minutes watching the Hamilton Pistols slowly but surely tilt the ice in their direction, coming from behind to claim a 5-3 win and a 2-0 series lead.

“This was a tough one for us to take,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “We felt like we should have had this one, and we let it get away.”

The beginning of this game, just like Game 1, was wide open and full of scoring.  D Olaf Martinsson got Anchorage on the board just seven seconds in, with an awkward knuckling shot that eluded Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen.  At the 42-second mark, C Calvin Frye banked one in off the crossbar to tie it.  And at 1:15, Igloos D Ted Keefe intercepted a pass and found RW Broni Zlotkin, who fired it above Koskinen’s catching glove to take a 2-1 lead.

“I don’t know what it is about these games,” said Frye.  “It’s like no one’s allowed to play D until a couple minutes into it.”

Three and a half minutes after Zhlotkin’s tally, RW Nicklas Ericsson finished an odd-man rush with a beautiful deke that got Koskinen to bite, then deposited the puck in the vacant upper-right corner of the net to give Anchorage a two-goal lead.  With the game getting out of control, Pistols LW Steven Alexander called his team out and urged them to turn the tide.

“Alex was basically screaming at us that we needed to wake up,” said Frye.  “He said, ‘We can just back in this, turn things around and bury these guys.’  And that got us going.”

Fittingly, Alexander got the rally started himself.  D Raymond Smyth hit him with a perfect pass in the neutral zone, and Alexander barreled up the ice at top speed.  He pulled off a gorgeous toe drag to shake D Tony Citrone, crashed in toward the net, and went high for the score.  Alexander then jumped into the boards and signaled to his teammates.

“He pointed and kind of waved us on like, ‘Okay, I got us started, now it’s your turn,'” said Frye.  “Alex did what he needed to light the fire under us.”

After Alexander’s goal, the game shifted in Hamilton’s favor.  For one thing, they tightened up their shoddy defense.  Anchorage had 17 shots in the first period; they had 21 in the next two periods combined.  And as the Igloos found their game stalling, the Pistols found theirs warming up.

In the second period, D Hercules Mulligan tied the game with a blast from the top of the offensive zone.  The goal was originally credited to RW Ben Summers, who was believed to have tipped it, but replays showed that the puck just took a strange bounce off the ice on its way into the net.

In the first minute of the third period, RW Claude Lafayette gave Hamilton its first lead of the game on a slapshot that leaked through Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s pads and trickled over the goal line before he could stop it.  And in the middle of the third period, Alexander put a capper on the night.  He received the puck in the left faceoff circle, his favorite spot, and wound up for his trademark slapper.  Worthington readied himself to block it.  But instead of shooting, Alexander slapped a pass to Lafayette, who put it into the yawning net for an insurance tally.

Igloos coach Sam Castor swatted down a question about whether he would go to backup Curt Freeze in net after Worthington struggled in each of the first two games.  “Not even a consideration; this is Ty’s series unless he gets hurt,” said Castor.  “Has he had a couple of rough games?  Yes.  But is that on him?  No. it’s not.  Our defense has left him out to dry far too often, and that needs to change in a hurry.”

Castor also criticized his team’s power play, which is 0-for-7 so far in the series.  “We had four today, and didn’t do a thing with them,” the coach noted.  “If we convert on even one of those, it’s a different game.”

As the series shifts to Anchorage for the next three games, the Igloos know they need to raise their game if they’re going to get back into it.  “We need to control the flow of the game,” said Koons.  “We did that against Portland, but so far this series, Hamilton has dictated the game.  If we keep playing back on our heels, this is going to be a short series.  We need to be on our toes instead.”

Continue reading “2020 SHL Finals – Game 2”

2020 SHL Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the Western Division in the 2020 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held on Wednesday at Kansas City’s Heartland Telecom Center, was announced today by coach Sam Castor.  The selections were as follows:

LW: Rod “Money” Argent, Portland.  The Bluebacks are hot, and they’re quickly building a strong and enthusiastic fan base.  The team’s fans showed their love in the All-Star voting, as they rivaled Hamilton in terms of the largest turnout.  Thanks to the strong support from the Rose City, the Bluebacks wound up with three starting slots.  Among those is Argent, who will appear in the All-Star game for the first time in his career.  The winger is fifth in the league in goals with 18, and has Portland’s second-highest point total with 34.  Argent is a strong two-way player, as reflected by the fact that he leads all Bluebacks forwards in blocks with 27.

D: Ted Keefe, Anchorage.  This marks the first time that a non-Michigan defenseman made the West’s starting lineup.  The strong support of Igloos fans allowed Keefe to finish with the most votes among defensemen.  Although this is Keefe’s first All-Star start, it is the third time that he’ll make an appearance in the game.   Keefe is having a strong year offensively; he is tied for the lead among SHL defenseman in goals with 11.  But it’s defense that’s his primary calling card.  Any unlucky opponent that’s been the victim of his punishing hits can attest to that; his 50 blocks on the season tell the same story.

C: Eddie Costello, Portland.  Last year, the veteran center was traded to Hamilton at the deadline, and went on to play a leading role as the Pistols won their first Vandy.  In the offseason, he signed with Portland, and has led the team to its spot atop the standings at the midway mark.  Those fans returned the favor by making Costello the top overall vote-getter in the West.  (It’s likely that he got support from his former fans in Washington and Hamilton as well.)  Costello’s 36 points are tops on his new team, while his 25 assists land him among the SHL’s top ten.  He’s no slouch defensively, either, with 26 blocks so far this season.

D: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan.  Kronstein continues his streak of All-Star starts, finishing ahead of teammates “Mad Max” Madison (a three-time starter) and Brooks Zabielski, as well as Portland’s Benny Lambert.  This comes as no surprise, in spite of the Wolves’ disappointing first half; Kronstein has started in every All-Star Game to date.  Though Michigan is not performing up to its usual standards, the German-born blueliner continues to produce on both ends, leading the team’s defensive corps with 22 points (including 10 goals, second among Wolves defensemen) and tied for the lead with 59 blocks.

RW: Vince Mango, Portland.  The colorful, high-scoring Mango secures his third All-Star berth and his second start, finishing roughly 1,500 votes ahead of Anchorage’s Nicklas Ericsson.  (It’s sweet payback for Mango; last season, Ericsson nosed him out of a starting slot by less than 800 votes.)  Mango is often regarded around the league as a one-dimensional scorer.  While his 15 goals does place him among the SHL’s top ten, Mango’s game has matured as he and the team have grown.  He has recorded 11 assists so far on the year, and he has even blocked 17 shots.  “Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day when Vince blocked a shot on purpose,” said Castor.  “He’d be afraid of mussing his hair.  But he’s clearly changed, and good for him.”

 

Second Line

LW: Jerry Koons, Anchorage.  Last year’s starter makes it this year on the second line, one of four Igloos chosen for the team by their coach.  Koons has appeared in every All-Star Game so far and has started twice.  Among all Western left-wingers, Koons is the leader in both points (with 37) and assists (with 25).  “I’m sure some people will say I’m a big homer because there are so many of our guys on the team,” said Castor.  “But you tell me which guy didn’t deserve to go.  No question about it that Jerry deserves to be there.”

D: Wyatt Barnes, Saskatchewan.  Barnes, who makes his fourth trip to the All-Star game, is the Shockers’ only representative at the All-Star game this season.  But he is no charity pick; arguably, he is the SHL’s best defenseman so far this half on both ends of the ice.  Only teammate Chris Oflyng has more points among the West’s blueliners than Barnes’ 29.  And no one in the league, in either division or at any position, has more blocks that he does, just one shy of the century mark.  “One of these days, the fans are going to wake up and realize that Barnesy should be starting in this thing,” said Oflyng.

C: Hunter Bailes, Michigan.  In spite of the Wolves’ underperformance so far this season, Castor couldn’t overlook Bailes’ solid campaign for Anchorage’s longtime rival.  Bailes is the Michigan leader in goals (with 14) and points (with 29), and his +14 rating places him within the league’s top ten.  Somewhat surprisingly for one of the league’s consistent stars, this is the first time that Bailes will be appearing in the midseason contest.  He was named to the team in 2017, but he missed the game due to injury; teammate Warren Marlow skated in his place.

D: Benny Lambert, Portland.  The Bluebacks aren’t solely represented by players who were voted in by their enthusiastic fans; Lambert is one of two Portland players chosen by Castor to accompany their starting colleagues.  This is not Lambert’s first All-Star appearance; he was Seattle’s lone representative back in the 2017 contest.  Lambert’s 71 blocks are tops on the Bluebacks, and his 16 assists are tied for second on the team among blueliners.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage.  After Ericsson narrowly lost the starting spot to Mango, there was little doubt that Castor would add his top-line right winger to the squad.  Ericsson is is one of five Western players who has been an All-Star every year.  He’s justifiably renowned for his skills as a passer, and he remains as sharp as ever: he’s tied for second in the league in assists with 31.  Somewhat more surprisingly, he also has more points than anyone else in the West, with 40.

 

Third Line

LW: “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, Dakota.  Airston, the Jackalopes’ only representative, appears in his third All-Star game.  The fan-favorite winger has been named in rumor after rumor over the last couple of seasons, always supposedly on the verge of being dealt for financial reasons, but he remains in Dakota for the time being, continuing to produce as usual.  Airston leads the Jackalopes in goals with 12, and is tied for the team lead in assists with 15.  “You have to tune all that stuff out and just play your game,” said Airston.  “I think I’ve done a good job with that.”

D: Gary Hermine, Kansas City.  In a surprising pick, Castor tabbed the 22-year-old Hermine as a first-time All-Star.  The Western coach acknowledged that he gave Hermine the nod in part to give the KC crowd another Smoke player to cheer for.  “The fans deserve to see a couple of their own,” Castor said.  But Hermine is also on the team on merit; he’s put together a strong first half with 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) and 41 blocks.

C: Tom Hoffman, Anchorage.  This pick by Castor definitely raised eyebrows around the league.  How could the coach pass over his own top-line center, Jake Frost?  How could the star who has started each previous All-Star contest miss the cut entirely?  According to Castor, the move came at Frost’s request.  “He told me, ‘Hoff’s outplaying me so far.  He deserves to go, not me,” said the coach.  “Of course, Frosty might have just wanted a few days off for a change.”  When the Igloos acquired Hoffman from New York in the offseason, the move was regarded as a cheap flyer at a position of need.  To the degree that fans knew Hoffman at all, it was as a draft bust who hadn’t lived up to his potential.  But he’s undergone a career revival in baby.  He has indeed produced more goals (12) and assists (16) than Frost so far on the year.  In addition, he leads the team in plus-minus with a +14 rating.

D: Sebastian Pomfret, Anchorage.  This spot originally belonged to Chris Oflyng of Saskatchewan, but the Shockers blueliner suffered an injury a couple games before the break.  To replace Oflyng, Castor went with a familiar face, tapping his own man Pomfret.  It’s the second straight All-Star appearance for the 25-year-old.  Pomfret is on track for a career-best season, putting up 19 points (5 goals, 14 assists) and blocking 61 shots to go with his +7 rating.

RW: Bengt Frederiksson, Kansas City.  The Swedish winger was the #1 pick in the draft, and he has completely lived up to the hype so far amid an otherwise forgettable year for the host city.  His 15 goals puts him among the league’s top ten and atop all rookies.  Similarly, his 36 points places him on the SHL leaderboard; no other freshman is within a dozen points of him.  “I am glad that I will have a chance to enjoy this honor among our fans,” said Frederiksson.

 

Goalies

Ty Worthington, Anchorage.  For the first time, Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist is not the Western starter.  And it’s not a fluke driven by the voters; in fact, Worthington has outplayed the mighty Bear so far this season.  His 2.11 GAA is third in the SHL, and his .933 save percentage leads the league.  His underlying numbers belie a 13-10-1 record, which speaks more to a lack of offensive support than anything else.  “It’s nice to see Ty get the top slot for a change,” said Castor.  “He’s earned it.”

Jesse Clarkson, Portland.  In another eyebrow-raising move, Castor elected not to pick Lundquist as Worthington’s backup.  Instead, the Western coach turned to Clarkson, making him the fifth Blueback to appear on the roster.  Clarkson was voted in as the starter of the Eastern team last season, when he played for New York.  After signing with Portland in the offseason, Clarkson rebounded from a shaky start to post his typically solid numbers.  His 16 victories lead the SHL, and he’s backing them up with a skinny 2.68 GAA and a stout .919 save percentage.

Igloos Rebound, but Keefe Fears Complacency

In recent seasons, the Anchorage Igloos have mastered the art of the slow start.  For the last three years, the Igloos have stumbled out of the gate, prompting a round of stories about whether the team’s reign at the top of the Western Division was finally over.

In 2018, the Igloos were 12-13-0 at the end of the season’s fifth week.  Last year, Anchorage got off to a dreadful 3-6-3 start and were still mired in fourth place with a sub-.500 mark as late as Week 5.  But shortly thereafter, the Igloos took off on runs that quickly re-established them in their usual perch in the standings.  In both seasons, the Igloos reached the SHL Finals, in ’18, they won their second Vandy.

This season, the Igloos’ season-opening swoon was their worst yet.  After losing 7-3 to the Portland Bluebacks last Sunday, Anchorage’s record stood at 2-7-0.  It was the worst record in the league, the first time that the Igloos had ever earned that dubious distinction.  The roster underwent significant turnover before this season, and the West’s other teams have been growing stronger by the season.  Was this the year that the Igloos were finally done as a contender?

And then, right on schedule, they turned things around. Saturday’s wild 8-7 win over the Washington Galaxy was the Igloos’ seventh win in a row.  They’ve lifted themselves out of the basement all the way into a tie for second in the West.

Ted Keefe

There’s plenty of time left in the season, but given the history, odds are that the Igloos will once again finish with one of the league’s best records.  So what’s with the lackluster starts?  Veteran D Ted Keefe thinks he knows the answer, and he doesn’t like it.

Keefe spoke to reporters after Saturday’s victory about the team’s tortoise-like starts.  He argued that because the team is so accustomed to deep playoff runs, they’ve become bored by the regular season.

“I think we take it for granted,” said Keefe.  “We figure we can sleepwalk through the first couple weeks, or even the first month, and then flip the switch and bam, we’re back to the playoffs.  It hasn’t burned us yet, but it’s a dangerous game, if you ask me.”

Keefe went on to point out that the West is a lot more competitive than it used to be.  “In the old days, Michigan was the only one you needed to worry about,” the defenseman said.  “But now Portland’s damn good, and Saskatchewan’s solid too.  Even KC and Dakota are playing better lately.

“It’s not written in the Constitution or the Bible or anywhere that we’re guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.  And there’s no guarantee that even if we do get to the playoffs, we’ll go all the way.  If we want to win the Vandy, we’ve got to play Vandy-quality hockey all season long.  Bad hockey builds bad habits.”

Jake Frost

C Jake Frost, who has a habit of slow starts himself, disagreed with Keefe’s assessment.  “I don’t think we’re taking anything for granted,” said Frost.  “But I do think that when you go deep in the playoffs every year and have shorter offseasons, it takes a little while to play your best hockey.  We’ll be there when it counts; I’m confident.”

Igloos coach Sam Castor agreed with the spirit of Keefe’s critique, if not its specifics.  “Our underlying numbers have been solid, even when we were losing,” the coach pointed out.  “We were taking good shots, they just weren’t going in.  And it’s taken some time to get the new guys integrated into our scheme.

“That said, I think Ted’s right to worry about losing our edge.  If I ever get even a hint of our guys taking the postseason for granted, I’ll going to stop it cold.  I’m not saying I’ll bag-skate ‘em till they drop, but they’ll get the message.  There’s no such thing as a lifetime achievement playoff spot.  You have to earn it every year, and our guys know that.”

If this year’s early swoon ends up being a temporary blip as usual, this will all be forgotten.  But it Anchorage winds up missing the playoffs, they may wish they’d listened to their veteran defenseman.