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.”

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.”

Bluebacks Seek First Finals Trip Against Igloos in West Playoff

Last season, the Seattle Sailors made the postseason for the first time.  It was a landmark moment not just for the franchise, but for the players, most of whom had never been to the playoffs before.  So what was the experience like?

Vince Mango

“Honestly, I have no idea,” said RW Vince Mango.  “It was over before I really knew what was happening.”

Yes, the Sailors’ postseason was practically over as soon as it began.  They were rudely dismissed in a three-game sweep in which they were outscored 10-2.  They never led at any point in the series.  And the team that sent them packing?  The Anchorage Igloos.

This year, a number of things have changed.  For one, the Sailors relocated, and are now known as the Portland Bluebacks.  They added a couple of top-notch contributors in C Eddie Costello and G Jesse Clarkson.  They’ve improved on both ends of the ice; they led the league in points and finished fourth in goals-against average.  Their reward?  Another trip to the playoffs… against the same team that swept them last season.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Mango.  “If you want to be the best, you got to beat the best.  I’m looking forward to a little sweet revenge.”

On paper, the matchup looks like a blowout in favor of Portland.  The Bluebacks finished the season 10 points ahead of the Igloos.  They took the division lead in the third week of the season and never looked back.  They were better on offense and in net.  And they’re headed into the matchup with a fully healthy roster, while Anchorage is missing a key offensive cog, RW Waldo Miranda, who was injured on the last day of the regular season.

But as the Igloos would be happy to tell you, games aren’t played on paper.  And they’ve got a few points in their favor as well.  For one thing, they’ve got experience on their side.  Anchorage has been in the playoffs every year except one (2016), and they’ve got two Vandys to their name.  For another thing, they’re coming into the playoffs on a tear, having won 12 of their last 14 games.  Portland, meanwhile, enters the postseason having gone 2-4-1 in their last seven games (although they’d long since locked up the division title by then).

But perhaps the biggest reason for the Igloos’ confidence is that they remember 2018.  That year, they faced the rival Michigan Gray Wolves in the playoffs.  The Wolves had cruised to the division title, leading wire-to-wire, while the Igloos had underperformed for much of the year before getting hot down the stretch to secure a spot.  That matchup was considered even more lopsided than this one; Michigan finished 14 points ahead of Anchorage.  But the Igloos proceeded to dispatch the heavily-favored Wolves in a stunning sweep, and went on to win their second title.

Jake Frost

“We’ve definitely seen this movie before,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “We liked the ending pretty well last time, and we’re looking forward to the sequel.”

“Everybody’s rushing to crown [the Bluebacks],” added LW Jerry Koons.  “But we’re the ones who have been here before, been through the wars and come out on top.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re a really talented team, but the playoffs are a whole different level of pressure.”

But Bluebacks coach Harold Engellund said that he’s not going to let his team get overconfident.  He’s made a point of showing them plenty of footage of last year’s sweep.

“I know they’re getting tired of looking at it,” said Engellund.  “But I tell them that the best way to get rid of those memories is to go out and make better ones.”

That’s exactly what his team will try to do.  But in order to find their happy ending, the Bluebacks will need to find a way past the team that’s seen it all before.

2020 SHL Week 16 Transactions

  • On Saturday, the Anchorage Igloos placed RW Waldo Miranda on the injured list and promoted RW Lionel LaNeige from their affiliate in Minnesota.  Miranda suffered an upper-body injury during the final game of the season against Michigan, after being flattened by a controversial hit.  He is expected to miss the entire postseason.  LaNeige makes his second appearance with the Igloos; he was called up earlier in the season and appeared in 6 games, recording 2 assists.
  • Also on Saturday, the Hamilton Pistols called up RW Anders Pedersen from their farm club in Oshawa.  The Pistols had an open roster slot after placing LW Magnus Gunnarson on the injured list last week, and they turned to the 22-year-old Pedersen to fill it.  Pedersen was Oshawa’s leading scorer this season, recording 52 points (24 goals, 28 assists).  This is his first SHL appearance.