Journalist”s Note: Last July 5, I posted a recap of the Allen Americans’ three consecutive postseason championships.
I did this because I enjoyed – for the first time – a first person experience in the winners’ locker room. A lot of emotion and love flowed forth (in addition to the liquid, etc.) as players hugged and congratulated each other, drank from the Kelly Cup goblet, danced, and interfaced with their friends, family members and team employees.
My conclusion was that the sheer outpouring of joy and satisfaction needed to be chronicled – not just for the current year, but for the previous two titles as well.
The locker room scene followed the post-game on-ice celebration they had with any fan who wanted to venture onto the ice for photos, a handshake, a word of congratulations, a hug, etc.
After the Americans recently captured their second straight Kelly Cup and fourth straight postseason championship, I once again witnessed another joy-filled night at the conclusion of a hockey season. Once again, I spent about 150 minutes in the locker room interviewing players while witnessing the successful end of a long regular and postseason grind.
I have revised and added to last year’s piece, crafted a new lead, and added some pertinent quotes from the principals of this latest addition to hockey’s most compelling success story. As such, players, fans….everyone can enjoy the chronicling of the Americans’ fourth straight titles.
I hereby dedicate this lengthy and comprehensive piece to the players, coaches, employees and fans of the Allen Americans hockey teams, and to their friends and families.
Hockey fans may now use the word “dynasty” when referring to the Allen Americans hockey team. Their fourth straight postseason Cup conquest clearly puts them into the discussion when the subject broaches teams that have dominated nearly a half a decade of pro hockey titles.
Clearly, the winning feeling one experiences after winning a championship breeds the desire to succeed. The coach sets the mood, several leaders among the players enjoin others to believe that they can overcome the intense odds of postseason competition. And, before you know it, everyone has bought into the mindset that they can and will prevail as the last team standing (or skating).
On the ice, each player takes his own game and even pain threshold to a higher level in the spotlight’s glare with the game, the series, even the season and the championship on the line.
“Winning two championship in a row was a tremendous blessing,” said Americans co-captain Gary Steffes, who helped Allen win the ECHL Kelly Cup in 2014-15 and 2015-16. “It’s surreal in one sense, but it’s incredibly encouraging in another. All of us as athletes want to be champions, and achieving that goal two years in a row really makes you feel like a champion.
“You feel bonded to your teammates, especially the guys you have done it with the last two years, and in a powerful way,” Steffes added. “It’s an experience we will share for the rest of our lives. We went to battle together, and were blessed to come out on top both years. I’m grateful.”
To win just one professional hockey championship is quite a feat – to win four in a row as the Allen Americans did recently with a six-game conquest of Wheeling to win their second straight title in the renowned ECHL is simply amazing, given the degree of difficulty that each postseason trek poses.
The Allen Americans are a team that has become a “dynasty” by winning when the spotlight shines brightest, and when everything is on the line.
“What an unbelievable accomplishment for the organization to pull off four (championships) in a row,” said defenseman Aaron Gens, who contributed to each of the ECHL Kelly Cup titles in 2014-15 and 2015-16. “To be here for two of them is very special. We play in a great (arena and community) and have a great coach (Steve Martinson). We love every minutes of playing pro hockey here….and to win the whole thing at the end (of a long season) is something we dream of.”
As we look back at the Allen Americans’ four consecutive pro hockey championships, it is clear that each of GM-Coach Steve Martinson’s squads had to rise up in the face of tough opposition, particularly during the Semifinals and Finals each year. They had to overcome some force, or some individual, in order to dance with and drink from the President’s Cup in each of their first two titles, and the ECHL’s Kelly Cup during the two most recent seasons that ended in unparalleled joy and celebration.
“To win four championships in a row…..what a testament to the Americans organization, GM-Coach (Steve) Martinson, and the guys who have been here for years before we entered the ECHL,” said Steffes. “Allen has been blessed to really develop a winning culture. Guys know what it takes, they are being pushed to excel beyond where they are at, and the team plays for each other.
“The community has a big part in all of this, too,” Steffes added. “The way the fans have supported and believed in us has been like a seventh man on the ice. I’m grateful to have been a part of it all during the last two seasons.”
Mully & Macker Plant the Seeds
The seeds for the franchise’s success were planted when the Americans were launched in time for the 2009-10 CHL campaign by General Manager and Head Coach Dwight Mullins and Assistant Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Bill McDonald (aka “Mully” and “Macker”).
Allen’s 89 points put them in second place behind the 101 point total amassed by Odessa (Texas) in the Southern Conference of the 15-team CHL their inaugural season. The postseason saw the Americans defeat Laredo and the Jackalopes, each in seven games to reach the finals against Rapid City. The Americans led the series two games to one before their rivals won the last three games, including Game Six in overtime.
Allen won the Berry Conference in 2010-11 with a league-high 97 points in the 18-team CHL before disposing of Rio Grande Valley in a three-game sweep and Odessa in five games. But they bowed to eventual President’s Cup champ Bossier-Shreveport in the Semifinals.
The Americans were eliminated in six games by the rival Texas Brahmas in the opening round of the 2011-12 President’s Cup playoffs after finishing second to Wichita (91-87 points) in the four-team Berry Conference circuit.
Martinson Takes Over Behind the Bench
When Martinson was hired to replace Mullins before the 2012-13 CHL season, the former NHL and minor league skater known for his pugilistic tendencies had coached his teams to six titles — five in the WCHL (with the San Diego Gulls from 1995-2003) and another in the UHL with the 2006-07 Rockford IceHogs.
Martinson’s teams play with an immediacy to succeed at the job at hand, skating and checking with passion and commitment while executing a game plan comprised of frenetic skating, attacking the net and two-way accountability.
His first Americans squad captured the 2012-13 CHL regular season championship on the final day by one point over second place Wichita (87-86) in the 10-team league with a 39-18-9 mark. Goalie San Jose Sharks’ prospect Aaron Dell tied for first with Fort Worth’s Kristofer Westblom, with each posting a 2.30 goals against average. Dell was second in wins with 22 behind the 24 posted by Wichita’s Torrie Jung. Allen’s leading scorer, Anthony Maiani (55 points, including 17 goals) ranked 17th in the league.
Martinson added the general manager’s duties after McDonald — who had remained with Allen as senior advisor of hockey operations — resigned in March 2013 to become the head coach at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The Americans celebrated Martinson’s first postseason series behind their bench with a five-game conquest of expansionist Denver. In the Semifinals, Allen jumped out to a three-games-to-one lead before Missouri rallied to tie the series. Allen prevailed in Game Seven, 7-3 as Brian McMillin and Todd Robinson each netted a pair of goals at the Allen Event Center.
Celebration Time – Winning The First Cup
In the President’s Cup Finals, Wichita won the opener in Allen and Game Three at home to take a two-games-to-one lead. Allen won Games Four (2-1 at Wichita) and Five (5-1 at home) before Wichita tied the series at three games each with a 3-2 win on their home ice.
Wichita appeared on its way to a Cup win after 40 minutes of Game Seven as forward R.G. Flath beat Dell in the first and second (shorthanded) periods. The Americans, who seemed sluggish to that point, hit the ice with a renewed vigor in the third session as forward Jarret Lukin halved the lead just over seven minutes in to bring the Allen Event Center crowd back into the contest.
Defenseman Trevor Hendrikx tied the score with just under three minutes to play in regulation, setting the stage for one of the most dramatic moments in CHL, Americans’ and arena history on Saturday, May 11, 2013.
Less than three minutes into sudden death overtime, Robinson took a pass from defenseman Mike Montgomery and beat Wichita goalie Torrie Jung for a 3-2 win and the Americans’ first President’s Cup title. “It was the goal you dream of scoring every day in your basement growing up,” said Robinson, the assistant coach for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks in 2014-15 and 2015-16. “My good friend (Allen forward) Darryl Bootland (convinced them to) bring me in to play for Allen late in the season. The guys made me feel right at home as soon as I arrived. Every time I think of that moment it gives me chills. We had a great team and even better people (who made up) that team.
“I had just stepped onto the ice — I saw (Montgomery) was picking up the puck (and) he hit me with a pass at the far blue line,” Robinson added. “I took two strides into (the Wichita) zone and took a slap shot. It beat Jung low to the blocker side…..and then the building erupted. I will never forget that moment.”
Robinson led the league in postseason scoring with 22 points, while McMillin paced 2nd among all CHL teams with 20 points. Defenseman Tyler Ludwig (16 points) was fifth, Kale Kerbashian (14) was tied for seventh, and Jim McKenzie and Jason Deitsch contributed 13 each to tie for ninth best. Forward Jamie Schaafsma and Bootland chipped in 12 points apiece to tie for 14th highest in the circuit.
Allen’s forwards included Maiani, Adam Pineault, Lukin, Drew Daniels, Chris Doyle, and Alex Levoie, along with defensemen Trevor Ludwig, Hendrikx, Montgomery, Mike Berube, Corbin Baldwin, and Bruce Aneloski, and goalies Dell (who notched all of his team’s 12 postseason victories) and Steve Silverthorn.
Two Goal Game – Winning The Second Cup
One year later, the 2013-14 Americans did not appear primed for a repeat after title finishing in third place with 83 points behind Missouri (90) and Denver (87) during the regular season. Levoie led the team with 76 points (25 goals) to ranked seventh in the league’s scoring race. (Todd Robinson had moved on to Tulsa and finished with 74 points, good for eighth in the league). Jonathan Lessard’s 28 goals led the Americans and his 57 points ranked 17th, while Schaafsma and Tyler Ludwig each had 55 points to tie for 20th in the CHL. Goalie Bryan Pitton was fifth in wins with 27, and his 2.75 goals against average was sixth best.
Allen conquered expansionist Brampton in the Quarterfinals before taking on Quad Cities, the 10-team league’s 5th ranked team. The Amerks lost the opener and Games Four and Five before rallying. Tyler Ludwig and McMillin each contributed a goal and an assist while Pitton made 32 saves in a big 6-1 Game Six victory at home to tie the series. In Game Seven, defenseman Jonathan Zion, Lessard and Asuchak each scored to build a 3-1 third period lead as Pitton made 30 saves en route to a nail-biting 3-2 triumph to advance to the Finals.
In the Finals, the Cutthroats won Game One in Denver, 5-4 behind four goals (tying a single playoff game league record) from forward A.J. Gale, who would finish as the playoffs’ leading scorer with 22 points. However, Gale was lost to an injury early in Game Two and did not reappear. Pitton made 47 saves as Allen won 5-4.
Hoping to capture their second straight Cup at home with Games Three-through-Five back in Allen, Martinson’s charges came through brilliantly. Allen won Game Three, 3-1 after forward Greger Hanson scored with just under five minutes left in regulation to break a 1-1 tie as Pitton turned aside 28 shots.
Allen captured Game Four in dramatic style when Lessard scored his second of the night just under four minutes into sudden death overtime in a 4-3 triumph.
For a fitting encore, the Americans won Game Five and their second President’s Cup by erasing a 1-0 second period deficit with a four-foal flurry in less than eight minutes off the sticks of Bootland, Schaafsma, Kale Kerbashian and Lessard. Pitton made 27 saves to secure the 5-2 triumph on May 10, 2014.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Bootland after Allen became the first CHL team to won consecutive titles since the Memphis RiverKings in 2002-03. “Defending the Cup is so tough. For most of this year, it’s all everyone’s talked about.
“I don’t know where my career will take me, or whether I’ll continue playing, but I’m really going to savor these two President’s Cup championships,” concluded Bootland, who played for the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles franchise in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
“We really took advantage of our momentum (during the four-goal outburst) and capitalized on our scoring chances,” said CHL Playoff MVP Schaafsma. “I think once we had that, we could smell blood and we were so excited it just got the adrenaline going even more. (The Cup victory is) such a great honor and is very rewarding, but I couldn’t do it without my line mates or my teammates. I really thought our goalie (Bryan Pitton) deserved (the league’s playoff MVP award) for all the big saves he made for us, but I’m still really thankful for the honor.”
“I really felt tonight was the night (the Americans would explode offensively),” said Martinson after winning his second Cup in Allen. “I thought (this type of game) was coming tonight because we hadn’t really played our best game against Denver.”
Schaafsma’s 20 points ranked third among CHL postseason scorers, while Maiani (18) ranked eighth, Hanson (17) tied for fifth and Bruce Graham and Lessard (15 each) tied for seventh. Pitton’s 2.20 goals against average ranked second for the post season, and he recorded all 12 of his team’s wins to lead the league.
Allen’s forwards included Levoie, Asuchak, Kerbashian, Bootland, McMillin, Lukin, Garrett Klotz, Maiani, and Cain Franson, along with defensemen Hendrikx, Steve Tarasuk, Zion, Ross Rouleau, Daniel Tetrault, Berube, and Tyler Ludwig, and goaltenders Pitton, Ross MacKinnon and Willie Yanakeff.
Americans Lose Their “Combs”
In 2014-15, Allen and its six CHL brethren bid goodbye to their former circuit and joined the ECHL as its Central Division and played all but a few of its regular season games within the division.
Martinson’s skaters seemed an even closer mirror image of its coach by displaying an unabashed passion for puck possession and physical play.
In a mid-January move that shocked the locker room as well as Allen’s devoted fan base, ECHL All Star forward Jack Combs took his 22 goals and league-leading 56 points overseas after accepting an offer to play for Bjorkloven of the second tier Swedish Hockey Allsvenskan league. He departed one day after leading his team to a sixth straight victory, 3-1 verdict over the Missouri Mavericks at Allen Event Center on Jan. 11. Combs did not last very long in Europe and returned to North America, but ECHL rules prohibited him from returning to Allen. He was claimed by and played for Stockton and later Cincinnati of the ECHL. In between, he was claimed by Central Division rival Missouri but never dressed out for the Mavericks.
The loss of Combs hardly stalled the Americans’ as a team or their offensive output. His linemate, Chad Costello, hardly lost stride. After missing most of the previous season with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign off the ice with an upper body injury, Costello finished as the 28-team ECHL’s scoring champion with a team single-season record-setting 125 points on 41 goals and a single-season team record 84 assists. He teamed brilliantly with linemates Gary Steffes, who netted a league-leading and Allen single-season record 44 goals and finished 9th with 73 points, and power forward Ian Schultz (19 goals, 38 points before being promoted to the AHL). Greger Hanson was also a frequent entry on ECHL score sheets with 29 goals and 62 points. Goalie Riley Gill finished 14th with a 2.59 goals against average and a 33-10-3-2 Win-Loss-Overtime Loss-Shut Out Loss mark.
The Americans, who set a franchise record for best winning percentage at .736 while leading the ECHL with 77 power play red lights, raced out to a huge lead atop the Central Division, winning eight straight and 16 of 19 through the end of 2014. They added another nine-game winning streak in January before cooling off and losing five of seven in early- and mid-March. They regained their winning touch, finishing with a flourish to compile the ECHL’s best record over its final 10 games – eight victories, an overtime loss and a shootout setback. Allen accumulated 106 points, one behind Eastern Conference and North Division champion Toledo. As a result, Allen had home ice advantage in every series until/unless it faced the Walleye.
Hat Trick – Winning The Third Cup
Allen dispatched of Tulsa in five games and Rapid City in six matches to reach the Western Conference Finals and a date with the Ontario Reign. Amid reported murmurs among players on existing ECHL teams that the Americans would not match up well with existing league squads, Allen fell into a three-game-to-one hole and were within 12 minutes of being bounced from the postseason in Game Five in Southern California.
Then Costello tied the game and touched off a five-goal explosion for a 6-2 victory that returned the series to North Texas. Back in the friendly confines of Allen Event Center, Allen’s defensive corps of Aaron Gens, Justin Baker, Kevin Young, Nolan Descoteaux, Garrett Clarke, Kon Abeltshauser, and twins Tyler and Trevor Ludwig improved its play by denying the speedy Reign forwards any odd-man rushes to make Gill’s live easier.
As a result, the reigning two-time CHL President’s Cup champs reined in the Reign, 2-1 in Game Six and 3-1 in a decisive Game Seven to capture the Bruce Taylor Trophy (named for the West Coast Hockey League’s founding father) and reach the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals.
South Carolina had outlasted Toledo in the Eastern Conference Finals with a classic triple overtime Game Seven goal by forward Joe Devin. Similar to Ontario, the Stingrays’ lineup is highlighted by speedy skaters, specifically the trio of Wayne Simpson, Derek Deblois, and Andrew Rowe. And they lived up to their advance billing, scoring or assisting on eight of their team’s first 10 goals to help their team win Games One and Three in Allen. South Carolina had an apparent psychological advantage when the series moved to North Charleston for Games Four, Five and Six.
That’s when Americans’ forward Vincent Arseneau, who had skated for Denver in the President’s Cup Finals just 13 months before, gave his newest team new life when he scored in double-overtime of Game Four to give Allen a much-needed 3-2 win.
“(Linemate Ian) ‘Schultzy’ gave me a good pass, and I think that was a turning point in the series,” said Arseneau, who had been assigned to Allen from Worcester in the AHL by the San Jose Sharks. “I’m happy about that goal, and now I can call myself a champion.”
Hanson was the overtime hero in Game Five, scoring in the first extra session for another 3-2 triumph that gave Allen its first lead of the series, three-games-to-two. Hanson gained separation from the South Carolina defense after taking a deft pass from defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser and beat South Carolina goalie Jeff Jakaitis with a wrist shot over his blocker pad for the game-winner.
“(Abeltshauser) made an unbelievable play at the blue line,” said Hanson after netting his 12th goal of the playoffs. “I got some room in their zone and was lucky to score. We believed we were going to win tonight. We controlled the play for much of the night and (goalie Riley Gill) was great again in net. We know they will come out strong tomorrow night, but our mission is to wrap up the series and end it on Wednesday.”
South Carolina captured Game Six, 4-1 to force a seventh game for only the fourth time in the ECHL’s 27-year history. The Stingrays’ coach, Spencer Carbery, was a player on the South Carolina team that had captured Game Seven on the road at Alaska in 2009.
But Allen dominated the game right from the opening whistle, with Costello and Arseneau scoring 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 second 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 the icing on the cake.
“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 in the euphoria of the Americans’ locker room celebration. “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. “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.”
“Before Game Seven, our coach (Martinson) laid it out for us, and we followed his game plan,” said Playoff MVP honoree and Americans’ leading postseason scorer Hanson (29 points to rank third league-wide and 12 goals), who hadbeen in the Philadelphia Flyers’ training camp prior to the 2013-14 season. “And we followed that plan, we played an unbelievable game, and I’m very proud of our team.”
As a result, they finally stopped Stingray sniper 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 the first five matches.
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.
“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.”
Costello finished with 28 points as the ECHL’s fifth leading playoff scorer, while key performances were also turned in by forwards Asuchak (11 goals, 21 points to tie for eighth league-wide), Chris Crane (20 points to tie for 10th place league-wide, 10 goals), Steffes (18 points, 13 goals), Schultz (16 points), and Schaafsma (16 points). Contributors also included Dyson Stevenson, Rylan Schwartz, Patrik Valcak, Brian McMillin, and Kyle Follmer; defensemen Trevor and Tyler Ludwig, Nolan Descoteaux, Aaron Gens, Kevin Young, Justin Baker, Konrad Abeltshauser (16 points), and Garrett Clarke, and goaltenders Rumpel (3 wins) and Gill (13 wins).
“I’ve always said I’ve had the same team (as a coach) for 19 years now,” Martinson said. “Just different names on the front and back. But it’s been the same team.”
Hat Trick Plus One – Winning The Fourth Cup
The 2015-16 Allen Americans struggle through stretches of the regular season, but hit their stride late in the campaign. Even with an impressive 89 points, the Americans finished 20 points behind a well-stocked Missouri Mavericks team mentored by former Dallas Stars defenseman and Americans assistant coach Richard Matvichuk.
Co-captain Chad Costello, the ECHL MVP award winner, was coming off his second straight ECHL scoring title with 103 points (23 more than his closer pursuer).
Casey Pierro-Zabotel finished as the second leading scorer (15 goals, 47 points) while co-captain Gary Steffes added 22 goals and 45 points. David Defensemen David Makowski (17 goals, 38 points) and Matt Register (37 points) also contributed on the score sheet, as did returning forward Greger Hanson (36 points) and newcomer Tristan King (33).
In goal, Joel Rumpel did outstanding work while compiling a 21-11-2-2 (won-lost-overtime loss-shootout loss) mark, and Jake Hildebrand went 5-1. Riley Gill was 12-12-1-0.
“I play on a great team with some skilled players,” said Costello, who also led the circuit in assists with 79 and finished the regular season with a 19-game point streak. “And it’s nice to win the scoring title, but to be honest, the only award we want here in Allen is another summer with the Kelly Cup.”
In the opening round, Allen trailed the Dallas Stars’ affiliate from Idaho, three games to two as the series returned to north Texas. The Americans won Game Six 4-2 as forwards King, Hanson and defensemen Register and Eric Roy scored goals to back the 30-save netminding of Gill.
In the Game Seven showdown, King was pure royalty, netting the game winner just 3:28 into overtime after Makowski’s power play marker tied the score at 2-2 seven minutes into the third period. Goalie Gill made 24 saves as Allen improved to 6-0 in Game Seven scenarios on home ice During Coach Martinson’s tenure over the last four seasons. In fact, Martinson, has never lost a Game Seven playoff showdown at home during his entire 20-year coaching career.
In the Western Conference Semifinals, Allen upended regular ECHL season champ Missouri in six games. They won the opener in Missouri, took two of three at home, then returned to Missouri to win Game Six by a 5-1 margin. Leading 2-1 on goals by Pierro-Zabotel and Costello after two periods, the Americans pulled away in the third session as Hanson added insurance with his seventh and eighth goals of the playoffs, the latter one hitting an empty net. Forward Dyson Stevenson also added an empty net goal to back Gill’s 32 saves.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Americans staged two memorable and dramatic comebacks in a 24-hour span to win Games Four and Five and close out Fort Wayne. Leading two games to one following a 2-1 Komets victory on Allen Event Center ice in Game Three, Allen recovered from a 5-2 deficit after two periods in Game Four to win 6-5 in overtime. In Game Five, they recovered from an early 2-0 deficit to take the lead and maintain that advantage, winning 6-4 despite Fort Wayne’s furious attempt to tie the score in the final period.
In Game Four, Costello assisted on four goals, with King, Hanson and Makowski scoring third period markers to set the stage for overtime.
“We never thought the game was over (despite trailing by three goals),” said Costello. “We felt that if we cashed in early in the third period, we would have plenty of time to get back into the game. When (King and) Hanson scored, we knew something special could happen….and it did.”
Less than four minutes into the extra period, forward Jean-Paul “JP” LaFontaine collected a rebound of Stevenson’s shot in the left faceoff circle and slid it into the net to cap the remarkable comeback.
“(Stevenson) was along the boards, passed it to me and I got the puck back (to LaFontaine),” said Steffes. “I don’t even remember if it was an accident or not, and ‘Laffy” buried it, then the whole team went nuts.
“We have some confidence in overtimes after winning several in our history,” added Steffes. “Obviously, that’s encouraging to us. We just play the same hockey we’d been playing (in regulation), stick to our guns and play solid defense. We have to be smart about the risks we take but at the same time we can’t play scared.
“Heading into the third period and also the overtime, we were emphasizing to not feel sorry for ourselves and to battle with everything we had,” said defenseman Aaron Gens, who saw his first game action since February after recovering from an injury. “This was a huge character win for our club.”
Goalie Gill (19 shots, 14 saves), who missed most of Game Two and all of Game Three with an arm injury, started in net but was pulled shortly after surrendering the Komets’ fifth goal. Hildebrand replaced Gill and whitewashed the visitors, making 17 saves in just over 32 minutes to earn the triumph.
In Game Five, defenseman Eric Roy and forwards Hanson, Pierro-Zabotel, Makowski, Spencer Asuchak and Vincent Arseneau were the goal scorers while Hildebrand was superb between the pipes, finishing with 44 saves.
As a result, the “never-say-die” Americans captured their second straight ECHL Western Conference playoff title and the Bruce Taylor Trophy, four games to one.
Allen also became only the fifth ECHL Kelly Cup champ and the first in 22 years to earn a return trip to the finals the following season, following in the skate-steps of Toledo, which won the 1994 and 1995 Riley Cup Championships.
“We feel great and super blessed to be returning to the ECHL Finals,” said Steffes, a member of the 2014-15 championship squad. “By God’s grace we just have been blessed with a calm, focused confidence that we can come back when we’re down. (Saturday night) really inspired that.
“Fort Wayne is a tremendous team,” added Steffes. “They’re very offensive and very skilled. They have great discipline in their systems. I have the utmost respect for those guys. This series could have gone either way. We are really fortunate things went our way, and thankful we got a chance to (clinch) it the way we did.”
2015-16 ECHL Kelly Cup Finals – Games One & Two
Martinson’s skaters were facing a mirror image of themselves – a team that likes to use its defensemen to jump up into the play. This series also mirrored the NHL Stanley Cup Finals because Allen is an affiliate of San Jose, while Wheeling is part of the Pittsburgh player development system.
Wheeling advanced to the Finals by becoming the first ECHL team to win Games Six and Seven on the road to overcome defending Eastern Conference champion South Carolina.
The first two games on Allen Event Center ice ended in a split. In Game Two, the Americans dug themselves too big a hole by falling behind 7-1 after two periods. With a heavy thunderstorm approaching the area in Period Three, Allen staged a dizzying five-goal comeback attempt in a span of 9:42 that had the raucous crowd screaming. After Asuchak netted his sixth of the playoffs, defenseman Gens picked the upper lefthand corner for his first post-season goal to make it 7-3. Then Steffes sandwiched his ninth and 10th goals of the playoffs around Pierro-Zabotel’s seventh red light to make it a 7-6 game.
But Wheeling replaced starting goalie Brian Foster with Franky Palazzese, who made four nice saves to hold the Americans scoreless the final 9:57 of regulation to preserve a 7-6 triumph. The 13 goals tied a league record for a Kelly or Riley Cup Finals game.
“Wheeling has a great team,” said Steffes. “They have a lot of scoring power and skill, which we learned firsthand. The positive is we also learned we are an extremely capable team that has a lot of resilience. That will be huge as we head into the next few games. We will watch film and reevaluate, learn and make needed adjustments for (Game Three and beyond).”
“We never quit,” said Gens. “I am proud to be a part of this great comeback and the effort of our team in the third period. However, the first 40 minutes were inexcusable and won’t happen again.”
“I did not (anticipate) the third period (rally) coming (because) the first two periods were the worst I can remember,” said Martinson. “The third period is all on our players, who decided to play. The only thing I said was ‘go win a period’.
“We surrendered too many one-timers (goals) and failed to block passing lanes,” Martinson added. “You can’t dig yourself out of that big of a hole.”
Rumpel (three goals allowed, 12 saves) played the final two periods, coming up with some big stops late in the third session to keep Allen in the hunt after replacing starter Hildebrand (three goals allowed, six saves).
In the series opener, Allen grabbed the lead with a 5-3 victory as King scored his fifth and sixth goals of the postseason. Hanson, Asuchak and Steffes also scored to back an impressive 25-save performance by Hildebrand.
2015-16 ECHL Kelly Cup Finals – Games Three, Four & Five
Despite the return of Gill between the pipes, Wheeling took a two-games-to-one lead with a 3-2 victory in Game Three 1 at WesBanco Arena in West Virginia. Allen never led as Steffes and Hanson each scored to tie the game, and Gill made 24 stops.
But Allen regrouped and tied the series at two games apiece by rallying from a second period deficit to capture a crucial 4-2 Game Four victory over the host Nailers at WesBanco Arena. Forward Nikita Jevpalovs scored his second post season goal on a rebound of Arseneau’s shot with 1:45 left in the second period to tie the score at 2-2, and Costello connected on a breakaway early in the third period to give the Americans the lead for good, 3-2.
“The goal by Nikita gave us a lot of momentum going into the third period,” said Martinson. “Chad made a great play to get the puck to Arseneau, who set up the play for Jevpalovs to score the game-tying goal.”
Roy hit an empty net for his fourth of the playoffs to finish the scoring, and Gill made 32 saves.
“We made a couple of mistakes that could have cost us, but Riley (Gill rescued) us with some huge saves,” said Steffes, who scored the first Allen goal. “This is a very important win for us, and it ensures that the series will return to Allen.”
The following evening saw the Americans jump back in front, three games to two with a dramatic 3-2 sudden death overtime victory in Game Five at WesBanco Arena. Hanson scored just :17 into the extra frame, wristing a loose puck from the left faceoff circle past screened Palazzese to stun the capacity crowd.
“(Allen forward Spencer) Asuchak won a puck battle along the boards and fed (Nikita) Jevpalovs, who shot the puck,” said Hanson on the giddy Allen bus on the long journey back to north Texas. “Their goalie made a great save but their defenseman cleared the puck out to me in the high slot. I just tried to shoot as hard as I could on (the goalie’s) glove side. It was a great feeling to see it go in.”
“Our guys really stuck together tonight,” said Steffes. “Even when (Wheeling) scored the tying goal late in the game, our team didn’t panic. That’s a big testament to the resiliency of our team.
“We have much respect for Wheeling, a great team who plays in a tough building (for the visiting team),” Steffes added. “We are very grateful and blessed to be walking out with two wins. Our team has character and heart, which I think we really showed.”
Allen scored twice in a span of four minutes early in the third period to take a 2-1 lead on goals by Costello and Arseneau.
2015-16 ECHL Kelly Cup Finals – Game Six
The Wheeling Nailers just kept coming, an unending onrush of offensive firepower similar to a continuous series of waves mercilessly pounding the shore.
The Western Conference playoff champion Allen Americans merely braced for the repeat attacks like steadfast soldiers willing to do whatever it took to protect their fortress, their lead, their “dynasty”.
Wheeling was intent on a repeat performance of their Eastern Conference victory over South Carolina. They were supremely confident that they could win Games Six and Seven on the home ice of Allen (Texas).
Thanks largely to veteran Gill in goal, the Americans prevailed to win their fourth straight playoff championship and officially enter the realm of being a “dynasty franchise.”
Despite being outshot 44-27 (including 33-13 in the last two periods) and spending most of the final 40 minutes losing a territorial battle, Allen won the proverbial war with a gut-check of a 4-2 Game Six victory over the Nailers before 5,904 screaming spectators at Allen Event Center in suburban Dallas.
The Americans’ triumph clinched the best of seven ECHL Kelly Cup Finals, four games to two and gave the franchise their second straight ECHL postseason title, and fourth straight postseason crown.
Allen also became the first team to win consecutive ECHL titles since the Toledo Storm in 1993-94 and the third in league history along with the 1991-92 Hampton Roads Admirals.
“We knew (Wheeling) would come with everything they had in the second and third periods, but we weathered the storm,” said Gill after earning his second straight Kelly Cup with Allen and his third in four years.
Gill, who won the Cup in 2013 with Reading and last year with the Americans, became just the fifth individual in ECHL history to win three Kelly Cup titles. He joined Jared Bednar (South Carolina in 1997, 2001 and 2009); Scott Burt (Idaho in 2004 and 2007 and Alaska in 2011); Louis Mass (Alaska in 2006, 2011 and 2014) and Patrick Wellar (Alaska in 2005, South Carolina in 2009 and Reading in 2013).
“Defensively, we were fundamentally sound,” added Gill, whose 12 playoff victories gave him an ECHL-record 48 career triumphs. Gill also has a league record 11 career Finals wins. “That helped us get the win we needed. Winning three Cups in the last four years is an incredible feeling. I can’t thank my teammates enough.”
Reciprocally, Gill’s teammates can’t thank Riley enough after the netminder put up a veritable wall by making 16 saves in the second period and 17 more in the third. “
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen goaltending like that,” said defenseman Thomas Carr, who joined the team during the final month of the regular season. “(Gill) was simply unbelieveable.”
“We’re a pretty confident group and (Allen and Wheeling are) very similar teams, to be honest,” said ECHL playoff MVP Chad Costello. “They like to jump up into the play with their defense and we like to do that as well. So we felt (the edge) would be (who would win) the goaltending battle, and we’ll take ‘Gillsy’ all day long.”
“……..Riley is the guy, he’s just got that calm in the big games and we feel like he’s got (our backs),” said Martinson after winning his fourth postseason cup in as many years behind the Americans’ bench. “Riley made an unbelievable save with three minutes to go…..I thought (that shot) was in (the net).”
Martinson was referring to Gill’s ability to extend and raise his right pad across the goal line to stop a point-blank rebound shot by Nailers forward Ty Loney with 3:40 left in regulation and the Americans clinging to a 3-2 lead. The miraculous stop drew a gasp of relief followed by appreciative applause from the partisan home crowd.
Gill made another key save with 2:20 left when he held the near post on a Wheeling two-on-one and handled a 15-foot wrist shot from the right wing faceoff circle by Wheeling forward Riley Brace. “
King and Hanson had given Allen a 2-0 lead in the first period, and Roy provided temporary relief with a third period goal that made it 3-1. Steffes clinched the triumph – and the Kelly Cup – on a long empty netter with :32 remaining. His 13th postseason goal was also his 10th career Finals red light, just one behind ECHL Hall of Fame inductee Phil Berger’s 11. And, his six goals against the Nailers tied him for second in goals by one player during an ECHL Finals competition.
Allen, which went three for four with the man advantage in Game Six, finished with a league-leading 27.2% rating (including 32.7% at home) power play rating for the postseason after leading the league at 21.1% during the regular season.
“This is pretty exciting to win this game, this series,” said Steffes. “(Wheeling is) tough, they’ve come back a number of times. We had to stand firm and fight to win this game. It’s a major blessing for us to win.
“You know, you go all the way back to first round when we were down three games to two to (Dallas Stars affiliate) Idaho, and we won (Games Six and Seven) to advance,” Steffes added. “Our team has resiliency, from the young guys to the veterans, everyone just stayed firm and kept their eye on what we had to do.”
Martinson, who became the third coach to win two Kelly Cup titles (joining Mike Haviland and Chuck Weber), also ensured that his team could compete for a fourth straight title by building depth into the playoff lineup. As a result, there were plenty of willing reinforcements to take up the slack left by injuries that sidelined Stevenson and defensemen Danny Federico and Makowski.
Blue line stalwart Gens also was lost to an injury in February but returned for the Western Conference Finals against Fort Wayne to help with his physical defensive presence.
“I think that our top guys from the regular season stepped up in the Finals,” said Martinson. “The good thing about the power play was Costello got on his forehand side and we feel like we generate more plays when he’s on his forehand. He made a couple of good plays and passes. Roy made a great pass (to King). We have a lot of skill on that power play.”
Those “top guys” included Costello, Gill, Roy, Gens, Vincent Arseneau, Steffes and Hanson, whose 23 points ranked third along with a league-leading eight power play goals. Costello, the ECHL’s regular season scoring king each of the last two years, tallied a league-leading 36 playoff points, the second most in league history and nine more than the next player’s total. In addition, Costello’s 29 assists are the most in a single postseason, and he also set a new ECHL mark with 10 assists in the Finals. His 13 points are the third most in a Finals series.
“Those (MVP) are team awards,” said Costello, who became the first player in the ECHL’s 28-year history to capture both the regular and postseason MVP awards in the same season. “I know they show up as personal awards, but they’re not. We had an amazing power play, which helps a lot, and a great coach (Martinson) who put me in the best position in the league. I was happy with all 20 guys. It was an amazing team effort from Day One.”
Hanson and Asuchak joines former Americans’ players Jamie Schaafsma (now with Fort Wayne), Brian McMillin (Dijon, France), and brothers Tyler Ludwig (retired) and Trevor Ludwig (Missouri) as the franchise’s only three-time postseason championship winners. Goalies Rumpel and Gill, forwards Arseneau, Steffes, Costello, and Stevenson, and defenseman Gens are now two-time ECHL Kelly Cup champs with the Americans.
The 2015-16 title team features first-time ECHL Kelly Cup winners Hildebrand, a goalie; defensemen Jordan Rowley, Rick Pinkston, Carr, Makowski, Roy, Danny Federico, and Matt Register; and forwards Kyle Neuber, Jean-Paul “JP” LaFontaine (nephew of former NHL forward Pat LaFontaine), Daniel Doremus, Jevpalovs, Pierro-Zabotel, King, and Justin Courtnall (son of former NHL forward Geoff Courtnall and nephew of former NHL forward Russ Courtnall).