There were reported murmurs among some players on existing ECHL teams that the two-time defending CHL President’s Cup Champion Allen Americans did not match up well in their new league. The last two rounds of the playoffs, those naysayers were widely reported to have noted, would provide the proof.
“Well, there’s one team raising the cup right now, and it’s us,” said Amerks’ defenseman Aaron Gens, one of the team’s emotional leaders and standout performers all year long after Allen’s dominant 6-1 victory over a talented South Carolina squad put an explanation point on Game Seven of the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals. “The truth is, we’re humbled by this experience. We’re just thankful for the way it went. Each of the teams we played throughout the playoffs (CHL holdovers Tulsa and Rapid City followed by existing ECHL teams Ontario and the Stingrays) are great hockey clubs, and we beat every one of them.
“When that final buzzer sounded………what an unbelievable feeling,” Gens added in the midst of the team’s postgame celebration inside its Allen Event Center locker room. “It’s a feeling I’ve never had in my life. And coming from a small town in Minnesota, it’s something I’ll never forget. To know what these guys have been through and have accomplished is truly impressive. A lot of great players and great guys led us into the battle and helped us win this title.”
Allen, which left the now-defunct CHL (along with six other teams) for the ECHL just before the opening of the 2014-15 regular season, won its third straight piece of hockey hardware thanks to timely contributions from players like forward Vincent Arseneau, a San Jose Sharks prospect who joined the team near the end of the regular season from Worcester of the AHL. Arseneau scored twice in the Game 7 win, but it was his double overtime red light in Game Four at South Carolina that erased a two-games-to-one Stingrays lead, tied the series at two each, and gave the Americans the confidence they needed.
“In that double overtime game (linemate Ian) Shultz give me a good pass, and I think that was a turning point in the series,” said Arseneau, who as a member of the Denver Cutthroats a year ago tasted defeat at the hands of the team with whom he was now celebrating. “I’m happy about that goal, and now I can call myself a champion.
“I wasn’t going to lose again this year – that’s what I told myself at the beginning of this series – because I had a tough summer last year and didn’t think I gave 100 percent (with Denver),” added Arseneau. “This year, when we lost two of the first three (to South Carolina at home), I was confident that we would come back. And we did it by winning a Game Seven (showdown).”
Allen also received timely contributions from ECHL regular season scoring king Chad Costello, another two-goal contributor in Game Seven who in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals at Ontario, California tied the score 2-2 in the third period goal to ignite a five-goal uprising and start Allen on its memorable comeback from a three-games-to-one hole.
Additional two-way play and scoring were provided by Gary Stefffes and by Kelly Cup playoff MVP Greger Hanson (12 goals, 29 points in the postseason, whose overtime goal in Game 5 in South Carolina gave the Amerks a temporary series lead.
“Before Game Seven, our coach (Steve Martinson) laid it out for us, and we followed his game plan,” said Hanson, who was in the Philadelphia Flyers’ training camp prior to the 2013-14 season before helping Allen to its second straight President’s Cup. “And we followed that plan, we played an unbelievable game, and I’m very proud of our team.”
The Americans defense of Gens, Justin Baker, Kevin Young, Nolan Descoteaux, Tyler and Trevor Ludwig, Garrett Clarke and Konrad Abeltshauser settled down and limited the odd man rushes that fueled the Stingrays’ speedy and proficient offense to make life bearable for standing goaltender Riley Gill.
As a result, they finally stopped Stingray sniper Wayne Simpson, holding him pointless in Games Six and Seven after he had set a new league postseason scoring mark with 38 points (including 25 assists) through Game Five.
The backline was the key to setting the tempo in Game Seven, particularly after a less-than-stellar performance in South Carolina’s 4-1 victory in Game Six that tied the series at three games apiece. Martinson did not mince words when criticizing his team’s effort in a game that could have resulted in a Kelly Cup conquest.
“We put a full 60 minutes together tonight,” Gens said. “It was our best hockey. We did what we’re good at – keeping the energy high, and limiting their odd man rushes that provided opportunities for our offense. And they didn’t miss.”
Gill, who needed a timely helping glove hand from Joel Rumpel (who backstopped three of Allen’s victories) in the opening round triumph over Tulsa, became a dominant goaltender beginning with the Conference Semifinals conquest of Rapid City and came up big in his showdown with South Carolina’s Jeff Jakaitis, the ECHL’s 2014-15 MVP and its Goaltender of the Year the last two seasons. “
“It’s pretty special to win my second (Kelly Cup), especially in a tight series like this that went seven games,” said Gill, who stopped 27 of the Stingrays’ 28 shots and lost his shutout with nine minutes to play. “I (won four games) playing on Reading’s 2013 Kelly Cup champion team, and this one is truly special. It was a mental and physical battle the whole playoff series.”
Gill’s eight career triumphs in the ECHL Kelly Cup spotlight tie him with Dave Gagnon (1991 with Hampton Roads and 1994 with Toledo) and Alaska’s Gerald Coleman (2011, 2014). He is also only the fifth netminder in league history to win multiple championships.
In Game Seven, Costello and Arseneau scored just 1:16 apart midway through the first period to set the tone and get the sellout crowd into the game. “We wanted to play more of our type of game, and in previous games got caught playing a little too safe,” said Costello, who made it 3-0 just over three minutes into the middle stanza. “We returned to our puck control game and that provided us with scoring chances that we cashed in on.”
Steffes made it 4-0 three minutes after Costello’s goal to chase Jakaitis, and Spencer Asuchak potted a rebound with eight seconds left in the period to make it 5-0. Arseneau’s second of the game early in Period Three provided icing on the cake.
“We had one intangible on this team, and it was character,” said Gens. “You look around the locker room, and it starts with our captain Jamie Schaafsma (whose faceoff win led to Costello’s first goal, and who has led the team to its three Cup triumphs). He makes sure he shows us the way and that we are following. And there are others who are leaders and we are very proud to follow them.”
Martinson, a former NHL and minor league role player known for his pugilistic tendencies, has won a hockey championship each of his three seasons behind the Americans’ bench and nine for his coaching career. He previously won titles in the WCHL (five with the San Diego Gulls between 1995 and 2003) and another in the UHL with the 2006-07 Rockford IceHogs.
Martinson demands a passionate commitment to his style of play that is based on frenetic skating and attacking the net, combined with two-way accountability once the puck is on the opponents’ sticks.
“I’ve always said I’ve had the same team (as a coach) for 19 years now,” Martinson told the Dallas Morning News. “Just different names on the front and back. But it’s been the same team.”