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 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 1

HAMILTON PISTOLS 6, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3

(Hamilton leads series, 1-0)

The SHL Finals got off to a fast start.  Both teams came out in top offensive form; they combined to fire 88 shots on goal.  But it was the defending champion Hamilton Pistols who got the upper hand, breaking the game open in the second period and cruising to a 6-3 victory over the Anchorage Igloos.

“We played the kind of game we wanted to play today,” said Pistols C Calvin Frye, who scored two of Hamilton’s half-dozen goals.  “We controlled the flow of play, kept the energy level high, and came away with the W.”

The first period established that this was going to be an offense-focused contest, but it wasn’t clear who would come away with the win.  The teams were trading goals in the early going.  The home team struck first, as D Burt “Hacksaw” Hampton – normally known more for his hard-hitting defense than his scoring touch – pounced on a loose puck above the faceoff circle and swatted it past a screened Ty Worthington and into the Anchorage net.  Worthington never tracked the puck, and didn’t flinch as it sailed over his catching glove.

“That was a real goal-scorer’s goal,” said LW Steven Alexander, struggling to suppress a smirk.  “Can’t wait to see the highlight reel on that.”

Just over a minute later, Igloos D Sebastian Pomfret deflected a slap-pass under the crossbar to tie things up.  About a minute after that, RW Claude Lafayette finished an odd-man rush with a knuckling shot that Worthington couldn’t corral before it crossed the goal line, putting Hamilton back in the lead.  On the following faceoff, Igloos C Jake Frost won the draw, then promptly led his team up the ice and pumped a slapshot top shelf.  Less than 5 minutes had elapsed, and the score already stood 2-2.

“At that point, it felt like we were headed for a football-type score,” said Frye.  “It was a little too crazy out there.”

After the initial adrenaline rush wore off, the pace settled down slightly, and the red-light parade came to a halt.  It wasn’t until after the halfway point of the period that Frye jabbed one home from the slot to break the deadlock, and got the crowd cranked up again.

Both sides agree that the key momentum shift occurred at the end of the first frame and the beginning of the second.  The Pistols had a pair of power plays that were virtually back-to-back and came up empty.  Then, with less than two minutes to go in the first, Hampton caught Igloos C Tom Hoffman up high with his stick.  Hoffman came away with a nasty cut below his eye; Hampton came away with a double-minor for high-sticking.

Anchorage had four minutes with which to tie the game or take the lead.  And they tried their hardest; they kept the puck in the offensive zone for well over three minutes of the man advantage and fired seven shots.  But Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen didn’t buckle under the assault, stopping all seven, sometimes with acrobatic moves that left the crowd roaring.

As the seconds ticked away and the Igloos still couldn’t find the equalizer.  The Pistols and their fans steadily gained confidence as Koskinen stopped shot after shot.  And 35 seconds after the power play came up empty, RW Kenny Patterson swooped into the Anchorage zone and beat Worthington short-side to make it a 4-2 game.  Frye added his second tally a few minutes later to put the home team firmly in command.

“That double-minor, and the fact that we couldn’t convert, that swung the whole game,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “Tip of the cap to Koskinen there; he really stood on his head.  But when we came up with that goose egg, and then Patterson went down and scored, that was a real back-breaker.”

The teams traded goals early in the third – C J.C. Marais scored for Hamilton, while Pomfret got his second for Anchorage – but the outcome was never really in doubt.

Pistols coach Keith Shields lauded praise on Koskinen, who made 40 saves in all.  “We really needed Koski today,” Shields said.  “It was a run-and-gun type of game, and you really need your goalie to be on his toes in that kind of game.  Koski definitely was.  Obviously, he was huge on that penalty kill, but all game he was seeing the puck great and making tremendous saves.  It’s a totally different game if he has an off night.”

If Koskinen and the Pistols are sharp again in tomorrow’s Game 2, they’ll be halfway to being the SHL’s first bakc-to-back champs.  But Anchorage will be eager to tilt the ice and even the series.

“We’ll be ready to bring the fight to them tomorrow,” said Frost.  “We had our hands full with them today, but they’ll have their hands full with us tomorrow.”

Continue reading “2020 SHL Finals – Game 1”

Pistols, Igloos Do It Again in Finals

The 2020 Vandenberg Cup Finals feature something that has never happened before in SHL history: a rematch.  The defending champion Hamilton Pistols will be trying to become the first SHL franchise to win back-to-back titles, and they’ll be doing it against the team they defeated last season, the Anchorage Igloos.

“The fact that we were able to win it by beating the team we modeled ourselves after, that was special,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “And if we could repeat against them, it would be that much more special.”

Needless to say, the Igloos – who themselves won the Vandy in 2018 – are eager to wrestle the crown back from the spirited youngsters from Hamilton.

“The rest of the league’s been wanting to write our eulogy all year,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “Sorry to tell them, we’re not dead yet.  Portland found that out the hard way last round, and we’re ready to show these guys the same thing.”

It was far from a guarantee that these teams would meet again in this year’s Finals.  Both teams found themselves in a cap crunch after last season, and were forced to part with key contributors.  The Igloos let go of C Nile Bernard, RW Ben Summers, and D Dave Frederick, all of them veterans who were popular with teammates and fans alike.  The Pistols, meanwhile, turned loose C Eddie Costello, the deadline pickup who starred down the stretch.

But both teams also got key contributions from some of their new additions.  For Hamilton, C Marco Venezio and Summers – both of them signed on cheaper-than-expected deals – clicked beautifully on a revamped second line that provided a major offensive spark.  For Anchorage, C Tom Hoffman – a third-year player widely regarded as a draft bust – arrived in an offseason trade and resuscitated his career, finishing third on the team in points with 62 and skating frequent minutes on the top line.

“If Tommy hadn’t delivered for us the way he did,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor, “we wouldn’t be in the playoffs, period.”

The teams also finished the season with similar records; Hamilton’s was slightly better, finishing with 82 points vs. Anchorage’s 78.  Both teams are even down a second-line winger; the Pistols are without LW Magnus Gunnarson, while the Igloos are missing RW Waldo Miranda.

“It’s no surprise that we’re so similar,” said Pistols C Calvin Frye.  “It’s like looking in a mirror.  But this is our chance to get the upper hand.”

If the Pistols can indeed win back-to-back titles, they’ll establish themselves firmly as the SHL’s top team.  But if the Igloos can win their third title, and second in three years, they can stake their own claim once more.

“This is a real heavyweight matchup,” said Pistols LW Steven Alexander.  “But this is our chance at immortality, and we’re not throwing away our shot.”

Igloos Make Postseason for Fifth Time

It’s said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  It may be time to add a third item to that list: the Anchorage Igloos appearing in the SHL playoffs.  In every year except 2016,the boys in baby blue have made the postseason.  It’s been an up-and-down season for the Igloos, who have been unusually streaky.  But on Saturday, they knocked off the Saskatchewan Shockers 5-3 in order to punch their ticket.

“You’d think it might get old after all these years, but it doesn’t,” said Igloos C Jake Frost, who recorded a hat trick in the clinching game.  “Because we never take this for granted.  We have to earn it every time.”

It certainly didn’t appear that Anchorage would be in the playoffs at the start of the season, when they lost 7 of their first 9 games and had the league’s worst record.  Then they caught fire, winning 10 games in a row to lift themselves into second place.  But just as soon as they seemed to right themselves, the Igloos skidded off course again.

A 10-game winless streak wrapped around the All-Star break dropped the team below the .500 mark and left them lagging well behind the frisky young Shockers.  But the Igloos picked themselves, dusted themselves off, and played brilliantly down the stretch.  Since that midseason slump, Anchorage went 17-5-1 to surpass Saskatchewan and earn a return to the playoffs.

“That’s a testament to the resilience of this team,” said coach Sam Castor.  “A lot of teams, even teams as talented as this one, might have fallen apart or turned on each other after the slumps we went through.  But we have a strong locker room of experienced guys who believe in each other and trust each other, and they banded together and played their best when we needed it the most.”

Sam Castor

Castor also praised the newcomers to the team, most notably C Tom Hoffman, who has scored nearly as many points this season (58) than he had in his career to this point (58).  “Everybody thought Tommy was a bust, that he couldn’t play,” said the Igloos coach.  “But he got here in a strong environment and got a chance to prove himself, and that’s exactly what he did.  We wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t stepped up and done so well for us.”

The Igloos head into the playoffs in the unusual role of underdog; with four games left in the season, they trail the Portland Bluebacks by 15 points.  But they remain as confident as ever.  They proudly point to the 2018 season, when they finished 14 points behind Michigan, but dispatched the Wolves in a sweep on their way to winning their second Vandy.

“I know a lot of people think Portland’s going to roll us,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “But a lot of people thought Michigan was going to roll us two years ago, and look what happened there.  We’re coming in hot, and we can play with anybody, no question about that.  So we’re feeling good and confident.”

 

Interview of the Week: Tom Hoffman

This week’s interview is with Anchorage Igloos C Tom Hoffman.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with Tom Hoffman, who has emerged from out of nowhere to become a strong contributor on a contending team.  Tom, thanks for speaking with us.

Tom Hoffman

Tom Hoffman: You bet!  It’s been a wild ride this season.

SHLD: It certainly has!  Perhaps you can tell us a bit about that ride.  In your first two years in New York, you were a marginal contributor at best.  You were generally considered a bust, and your future in the league was an open question.  Then you were traded to Anchorage, and suddenly you’re one of the team’s top scorers.  You’ve already scored more goals this season than you had in your entire career, and you’ve set a personal high in assists as well.  You’ve skated on the Igloos’ top line.

TH: Yeah, that’s all true, which is nuts.  But yeah.

SHLD: So how did you do it?  What was the secret to turning your career around?

TH: I think the “secret” was landing with a good organization.  In New York, it’s a star-driven system.  The big guys are always going to get theirs, and everyone else is fighting for the table scraps.  If you can complement one of the stars, then you’ll get your ice time.  Otherwise, it’s a lot tougher.  I never really got a chance to skate with the stars, and I just got buried.  I didn’t get opportunities, so my numbers weren’t great, and the coaches lost confidence in me and I lost confidence in myself.  It was a bad cycle.

SHLD: And Anchorage is different?

TH: Totally different, night and day.  Anchorage is a much more team-based culture.  It’s all about winning and what’s best for the organization.  The stars want to help you succeed to help the team succeed, instead of looking at you as a rival.  And ice time is assigned based on performance, not reputation.  I’m getting top-line minutes here; I never could have gotten that with the Night.

SHLD: So has that taken some of the pressure off you and helped you to perform better?

TH: Yes, definitely.  In New York, it felt like every time I had a bad shift, it meant I was in danger of getting my minutes cut or getting benched.  The stress and pressure just built and built, and of course it impacted my performance.  I got in a hole that I couldn’t get out of.  Here, if I have a bad shift, I know that I’ll be able to go out there and try again next shift.  It’s a much more supportive environment, and I love it.

SHLD: Let’s talk about the team for a bit.  The Igloos are in a strong position in the playoff chase, but they face a tough challenge from Saskatchewan.  What do you think Anchorage needs to do to secure another trip to the postseason?

TH: We just need to keep playing our game.  We’re a strong team all around, and we’re in a great position to go all the way.  We just need to keep our heads up, keep our intensity up, and keep playing the way we know how.  The Shockers won’t make it easy on us, but I’m confident in us.

SHLD: Excellent!  Well, thanks for your time, Tom. Good luck the rest of the season!

TH: Thanks!  I just want to keep the good times going.

Two Big Rallies Highlight Wild Saturday

The SHL season is reaching a critical juncture.  The playoff races are coming into focus, and each game is magnified in importance, as contenders fight hard for every possible point.  On Saturday. two teams in the thick of the playoff chase – the Anchorage Igloos and the Quebec Tigres – staged amazing third-period rallies to salvage points from what looked like certain defeat.

The Igloos were at Neon Sky Arena facing the New York Night, a struggling team that fired its coach last week.  Struggling or not, the Night still have a powerful offense and can run up the score at any time.  And they barraged the Igloos and backup goalie Curt Freeze.  They fired 17 shots in the first period and scored three times.  By the midpoint of the second period, New York led 6-2, and the fans were razzing the Anchorage players mercilessly.

Jerry Koons

But the Igloos refused to give in.  In the waning minutes of the second, RW Broni Zhlotkin got on the board to pull Anchorage within 6-3, but they headed into the locker room still trailing by three with only 20 minutes remaining in regulation.  “Even though we were behind, we felt confident,” said LW Jerry Koons after the game.  “We know that we’re a strong enough team not to be counted out of any game.”

To start the third period, C Jens Bunyakin won the opening faceoff, and the Igloos stormed up the ice and scored, with Zhlotkin finishing to make it a two-goal game.  Then, seven and a half minutes later, D Tony Citrone went five-hole on New York netminder Sherman Carter, and the Igloos were within one goal.  A mere thirty seconds later, LW Tadeusz Adamczyk tied it up with a shot that banked in off the crossbar.  The Igloos had effectively silenced the crowd, but they weren’t done.  With less than five minutes remaining in the game, C Tom Hoffman fired a hard, low slapper that eluded Carter’s catching glove and landed in the back of the net.  It proved to be the winning goal in a 7-6 Anchorage victory that kept the Igloos in second place by four points over the Saskatchewan Shockers.

Meanwhile, Quebec is slowly, doggedly trying to catch up to the Hershey Bliss and secure the second and final playoff spot in the East.  With a game at home against the fifth-place Dakota Jackalopes, the Tigres came in looking for an easy win.  But they were in for a rude awakening, as Dakota shelled goalie Riley Lattimore.  After the first frame, Dakota had built a 5-1 lead despite being outshot 16-13.  In the second period, Quebec was able to regain control of the game’s tempo, slowing things down considerably.  But they couldn’t score, and they came into the third still staring at that four-goal deficit.

Walt Camernitz

“Honestly, we thought the game was probably done,” said C Mikhail Ilyushin.  “But Cammy [LW Walt Camernitz] provided a good speech.  He said, ‘Come on, guys.  We’re the better team, and we cannot lose like this.  We need to go out and light a fire.”

Ninety seconds into the third stanza, D Hampus Olsson lit the blaze that Camernitz was hoping for, jamming home a rebound from a severe angle.  But the Tigres were unable to get anything else going until Dakota took a pair of poorly-timed penalties.  D Kirby Hanlon, a former Tigre, committed high-sticking on a missed lift check just before the nine-minute mark.  It took only ten seconds on the ensuing power play for Quebec winger Rupert MacDiarmid to cash in.  And a mere six seconds after MacDiarmid’s goal, Dakota D Alex Angelos wound up in the sin bin after swinging a fist in Camernitz’s direction.  The Jackalopes nearly killed off that penalty, but Tigres RW Stephane Mirac fired a slapper home with three seconds left in the power play.  A couple minutes after that, Camernitz poked the puck loose in the neutral zone and found Mirac, who went streaking to the net and scored the tying goal on a beautiful deke.

Like the Igloos, the Tigres scored four times in the third period.  Unlike the Igloos, however, they weren’t able to score the go-ahead goal, and the game ended in a 5-5 tie.  Still, that tie – the third one in a weird week for Quebec – allowed them to move into a tie with Hershey for second place.

“We do not play the most beautiful hockey,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “But we play hard hockey, and we are quite determined and do not give up ever.”

It was a pair of thrilling games in an exciting week for the league.  If this is any indication of what’s to come, the last 12 games of the season should be a wild ride.

Continue reading “Two Big Rallies Highlight Wild Saturday”