The defending Central Hockey League champion Allen Americans will have the opportunity defend their title. Despite trailing in their semifinal series against Quad Cities, Allen rallied for 6-1 and 3-2 victories on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 29 and 30, respectively at the Allen Even Center.
As a result, coach Steve Martinson’s squad will face off against the Denver Cutthroats in the best-of-seven championship series to determine this year’s Ray Miron President’s Cup champion beginning in Denver, Colorado on Friday, May 2. Denver finished the regular season in 2nd place with 87 points, while Allen was seeded 3rd with 83 points. The Cutthroats defeated #7 seed Tulsa and #8 seed Arizona to reach the Cup Finals.
This will be the third trip to the championship round for the Americans’ franchise. Last season, they defeated Wichita with a stunning 3rd period comeback and a sudden death overtime goal in Game 7 of the championship series. In their first season of operation (2009-2010), Allen dropped a six-game series against the Rapid City Rush.
“I think we saved our best play for these two (Games Six and Seven),” said 6-foot-5 center Bruce Graham, whose team scored a league-leading 249 goals during the regular season. “We play a skating game and were outstanding when we had to be. Every line that Coach Martinson threw out there did a tremendous job. In both games, we felt good right from the start. The key was, we were aggressive, we got our forecheck going early and continued to do so throughout the game.”
The Americans returned home for what they hoped would be two games against the Mallards, who had taken a three-games-to-two series lead after their goalie, Thomas Heemskerk, slammed the door on Allen en route to sudden death overtime victories of 2-1 and 3-2 in Games 4 and 5, respectively, in Moline, Illinois.
“Once we taook the ice for Game 6 here, we got a lot of traffic in front of (Heemskerk),” explained Graham. “He has been stopping what he’s seeing, and he stole both games (in Moline). But once we began to (screen) him and put a lot of pucks on the net, things changed for us.
“The truth is, when we’re aggressive and play that style of game with a relentless forecheck I don’t think there’s a (CHL) team that can hang with us,” added Graham, who scored 109 regular season and playoff goals for Allen during a previous three-year stint from 2009 to 2012 before playing for Nottingham, England of the EIHL during last year’s President’s Cup championship campaign. Graham rejoined Allen for the final 15 games of this year’s regular season.
In the decisive Game 7, Allen jumped in front when Jonathan Zion scored his first goal of the postseason on a power play. Zion converted the ricochet defenseman Tyler Ludwig’s shot from the point midway through the first period. Former Americans forward Jim McKenzie tied the score 1-1 four minutes later with a wrister from the right faceoff circle.
Left wing Jonathan Lessard put Allen in front to stay with his 4th goal and second in two nights midway through the second period when he beat Heemskerk on a breakaway. Center Spencer Asuchak’s 4th goal and his second in two nights 3:32 into Period Three on a power play extended the advantage to 3-1.
Americans’ standout goalie Bryon Pitton, who finished with 30 saves, was beaten a minute after Asuchak’s marker to make it 3-2. However, he shut the door on Quad Cities for the final 15:40. The Mallards were called for three offsides infractions during the waning minutes and did not pull Heemskerk until there were only 40 seconds remaining in regulation.
“It was the seventh game and we took stupid penalties and it cost us,” said Quad Cities coach and former Chicago Blackhawks forward Terry Ruskowski, whose team was outscored 9-2 by Allen on the power play. “.
“I take the approach when I’m playing that it’s just like any other game, and when I do that, I’m able to focus better and stop the puck,” said Pitton, who defeated his brother, Brampton forward Jason and the Beast in five games during the Opening Round of the CHL playoffs. “It also helps to play with the lead, which we did up (in Moline).
“Defensively, we played two outstanding games (in Allen),” Pitton added. “Our defense did a great job clogging the middle and keeping their shooters to the outside and further away from the net. And our forwards have been playing great defensively, they were coming back and putting pressure on the (Mallards’) forwards.”
In Game 6, Allen tied the series at three games apiece with a dominating 6-1 triumph over visiting Quad City at the Allen Event Center on Tuesday, April 29. Allen doubled its lead to 4-0 late in the second period on Ludwig’s power play goal and Lessard’s even strength tally just 11 seconds apart. After the Mallards’ McKenzie lit the lamp on the power play early in the third session to make it 4-1, left wing Greger Hansen scored his 6th on a power play and right wing Anthony Maiani added his 4th to give goalie Pitton (32 saves) some breathing room. The Americans jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the opening period goals by Asuchak and Graham (his 6th on a power play). “This is what we expected tonight,” said Allen right wing Darryl Bootland, who contributed a pair of assists to the triumph. “We have a lot of pride, and there was no way our season was going to end with Game 6.”
In Game 5, the Americans fell into a three-games-to-two hole after losing 3-2 in overtime on Saturday, April 26 in Moline, Illinois. Goalie Pitton (29 saves) yielded goals during the final minute of regulation and late in overtime. Allen center Alex Lavoie tied the score early in the 3rd period by converting a Bootland power play feed, and Bootland lit the lamp midway through the session for a 2-1 Americans lead. “To be honest, we could’ve won both the (overtime) games up there,” Pitton admitted. “But our guys were getting a little frustrated because they weren’t scoring despite putting a lot of pucks on the net. We were getting a lot of shots, but we also have to drive to the net. Once we returned home, our guys were going to the tough areas, and we began scoring.”
In Game 4, Quad Cities tied the series at two games apiece on Friday, April 25 with a 2-1 overtime victory in Moline. Lavoie returned from Oklahoma City of the American Hockey League and quickly scored a power play goal early in the first period for a 1-0 Allen lead. The Mallards tied the score 1-1 in the final minute of period two, and victimized Pitton (31 saves) with the game-winner less than seven minutes into the extra session
In Game 3, Allen took a two-games-to-one lead with a 4-2 victory on Wednesday, April 23 as the series shifted to Moline. Graham scored on the power play and Lessard added a shorthanded tally within a three minute span late in the first period to give Allen a 2-0 lead within a three minute span late in the 1st period. After the Mallards cut the lead to 2-1 midway through the 3rd period, right wing Jamie Schaafsma converted a Graham feed to make it 3-1. Hansen added an empty net goal after Quad City had scored late in the period and cut the lead to 3-2. Pitton made 33 saves for his 6th victory of the post season.
In Game 2, the Americans tied the series at a game apiece at the Allen Event Center on Sunday, April 20 when Pitton made 23 saves to earn his first CHL playoff shutout. Graham broke a scoreless tie with the game-winner goal midway through the third period, and Asuchak added an empty netter in the final minute.
Allen dropped the series opener at home on Friday, April 18 by a score of 4-2. Trailing 2-0, the Americans tied the score it at 2-2 midway through the second period when Graham and Maiani scored within a 2:18 span. Quad Cities regained the lead for good just four minutes later, and added an early third period tally against Pitton (22 saves).