It wasn’t as easy as one might have expected in a series between two teams that were separated by 26 standings points in the Central Division during the just completed regular season.
But the two-time defending CHL Presidents Cup champion Allen Americans battled their way to a five-game conquest over the Tulsa Oilers in their best-of-seven ECHL Kelly Cup Western Conference semifinal series with a hard-fought 3-2 victory in Game Five on Tuesday night, April 21.
The Central Division regular season champs will face the winner of the Quad City-Rapid City Western Conference finals series beginning Friday, May 1.
“It’s good to have this first round behind this,” said Americans GM-Coach Steve Martinson. “We came out of this series with no serious injuries, so that’s always a plus.
Allen was bolstered by the return of Ian Schultz, the burly 6-foot-2, 215-lb. center from the AHL’s Iowa Wild, whom he joined in mid-February. Schultz scored the go-ahead goal to give Allen a 2-1 lead against the hard-charging Oilers, then set up the game-winner by ECHL CCM Player of the Month Chad Costello to finish a three-goal uprising in the second period.
“It feels good to return to the Americans,” said Schultz, who was the team’s third leading scorer when he departed for the Minnesota Wild’s top affiliate. “I left at a pivotal time, and the guys stuck with it (and finished among the league’s top teams). It’s a great feeling to be able to jump right back in.”
“It’s great to be able to jump right back into it,” Schultz added. “We came together earlier in the season and now have a complete team.”
Schultz and Spencer Asuchak give Martinson two rangy, prototypical power forwards who like to bang bodies and charge the net and create space for goal scorers like Gary Steffes, Costello and Gregor Hanson.
There’s an old saying, when you go into playoffs, don’t get too high, don’t get too low,” said Schultz. “We get some time off, then it’s back to work.”
Goalie Joel Rumpel, the Wisconsion Badger ex who joined the Americans late in the regular season, capped a three-win series with a big save in the waning seconds of Game Five to seal the victory. “I’m still getting used to everything and everyone,” said Rumpel. “Give Tulsa a lot of credit for throwing it at us pretty well. They’re playing for their lives. And when our defense takes their guys wide and I can see where the shots are coming from, it’s very helpful. They have a great program here, and some guys who can really play the game, and that helps a goalie coming in. They really have my back.”
Allen is hoping for the return of previously injured defenseman Tyler Ludwig, a standout performer who missed the end of the regular season and all of the opening round playoff series.
The six-year old Allen franchise, affiliated with the NHL’s San Jose and AHL Worcester Sharks, finished the regular season with a 48-14-6-4 (W-L-OTL-SOL) mark for 106 points. They rank second to the Toledo Walleye’s 107 points in the ECHL, meaning they have home ice against every other team as they compete for the first time for the ECHL’s Kelly Cup, a trophy named in honor of Patrick J. Kelly, one of the league’s founders.
Individually, Costello earned First Team All-ECHL awards and won the league’s scoring title with 125 points, while teammates Aaron Gens, a defenseman and forward Steffes earned Second Team Honors. Blueliner Justin Baker earned a spot on the ECHL All-Rookie team, as well.
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 (comprised exclusively of former CHL franchises), 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. And they finished with a flourish to compile the ECHL’s best record over its final 10 games – eight victories, an overtime loss and a shootout setback. Some information for this story was obtained from Barry Janssen’s Allen Americans Blog at http://www.allenamericansblog.blogspot.com/.