The Kansas City Smoke have been stumbling through a dismal month of hockey. Coming into Saturday’s game, they’d lost five in a row and 13 of their last 14. Since a rare three-game winning streak that ended on Valentine’s Day, Kansas City has posted a pitiful 1-18-1 record. They’re weak on both sides of the puck; they’re dead last in goaltending (3.94 GAA and .885 save percentage), tenth on defense (34.5 shots allowed per game), and ninth on offense (100 goals scored).
On Saturday, the Smoke hosted the Anchorage Igloos at Heartland Telecom Center. Given that the Igloos are fighting tooth and nail for playoff position in the crowded West, they were widely expected to stomp the Smoke. Instead, Kansas City burst out with a rare offensive explosion, stunning Anchorage with a 6-5 win. The Smoke scored as many goals in this game as they had during their prior five-game losing streak.
“This is a big win for us!” crowed Smoke RW Zachary Merula. “When you’re in a slump like we’ve been, it’s easy to get down on yourself. But we showed that we can beat anybody!”
After the first two periods, Kansas City had played Anchorage close, but still found themselves trailing 4-3. This seemed like a harbinger of yet another defeat; third periods have been a horror show for the Smoke all season. They’d blown countless leads in the last period; coming in behind, they seemed ripe for another blowout.
But in the locker room before the third, D Tony Hunt rallied his teammates. In a young clubhouse, the 35-year-old Hunt has been a vocal leader. He exhorted the Smoke to go out and steal a win.
“Hey guys, have you noticed [the Igloos] out there?” Hunt said. “They’re just skating around. They think they’ve got this one in the bag. I think it’s time for us to go out there and give ‘em a shock! We’ve got awesome fans, and it’s been a while since we’ve given them any good news. Let’s go out and give ‘em a W they won’t forget!”
The fired-up Smoke didn’t take long to make good on Hunt’s words. Just 41 seconds into the final period, RW Tyler Cloude snapped a shot between the pads of Anchorage goalie Wendell Cantillon to tie the score. Hunt waved his arms to the crowd and got them to scream at the top of their lungs.
After that, Smoke C Mike Rivera took the spotlight. Rivera is the Kansas City captain, but he generally prefers to lead by example. Five minutes after Cloude’s tying blast, Rivera got behind the Anchorage defense and beat Cantillon on the short side to give the Smoke their first lead since the second minute of the game. Ninety seconds later, Rivera redirected a slapper from LW Trevor Green into the net to make it 6-4 Kansas City. Rivera jumped into the glass as the fans roared with delight.
“I got goose bumps, no lie,” said Rivera. “Our crowds are usually pretty chill, but they really got amped this time. Dude, it was amazing.”
The Smoke may have caught the Igloos napping early in the period, but the defending champs didn’t go down quietly. Just over a minute after Rivera’s second goal, Igloos C Jake Frost scored to cut KC’s lead to one. The crowd’s buzz turned uneasy; they’d certainly seen plenty of late collapses before.
But Hunt began thumping his stick against the boards, and persuaded his teammates to do the same. Pretty soon, they had the crowd clapping in unison.
“What Tony did was really cool,” said Merula. “I mean, these fans had every reason to think we were going to blow it, but Tony turned ‘em around and got them to believe. And they got us to believe.”
Throughout the rest of the period, the Smoke fans showered their heroes with cheers and chants. And the players responded, making rare blocks and steals. Goalie Dennis Wampler made a couple of ten-bell saves that earned standing ovations. And for the final minute of the game, all the fans got on their feet and roared, urging the Smoke on to a most unlikely victory.
“How ‘bout that W, huh!” exclaimed Smoke coach Randy Bergner, grinning ear to ear. “This season’s been a slog at times, so I give a ton of credit to Hunter and the boys for making a stand. And a big salute to our fans, who were the best I’ve ever seen! We couldn’t have done this without them.”