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 (West Virginia), an affiliate of Stanley Cup finalist Pittsburgh and the Eastern Conference playoff title winners, had won their last two best of seven series despite trailing three games to two. In fact, they became the first ECHL team to win Games Six and Seven, upending defending champion South Carolina in the conference finals.
And they were aiming for a repeat performance, confident that they could win Games Six and Seven on the home ice of Allen (Texas), an affiliate of Stanley Cup finalist San Jose.
Thanks largely to veteran goalie Riley Gill, the Americans prevailed to win its 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 on Thursday, June 9 with a gut-check 4-2 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. Allen previously captured the Central Hockey League’s President’s Cup in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
Allen 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 Allen goalie Riley 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 joins 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 this year give 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. “
“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.”
“I don’t want to take anything away from our other goalies, but Riley is the guy,” said GM-Coach Steve Martinson after winning his fourth postseason cup in as many years behind the Americans’ bench. “He’s just got that calm in the big games and we feel like he’s got (our backs). He 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. “
“…..that Gill was the MVP by far,” said Wheeling coach Jeff Christian. “That guy came (into the series after recovering from an injury) in Game Three and changed the whole series. If they don’t have him, I think we’re in a whole different atmosphere. He robbed Loney there at the end and that was the Cup-saver, if you will.”
“The Nailers should be proud,” said Costello. “They have a good team and the last two series they came back after being down (three games to two). We didn’t want to give them another chance to do that and have to go to a Game Seven. Fortunately, when ‘Gillsy’ is in that kind of mode, he’s tough to beat. Tonight we got a good lead, played good defense and ‘Gillsy’ hung in there for us. It feels great to win.”
Allen easily won the first period, outshooting the Nailers 16-9 and emerging with a 2-0 lead on power play goals by forwards Tristan King and Greger Hanson. King drilled a one-timer off a pass from defenseman Eric Roy past Nailers goalie Brian Foster for his seventh goal of the postseason, and Hanson redirected a centering pass by Costello from the right wing boards past Foster for his ECHL-leading 15th playoff red light.
After Allen barely missed extending the lead on several chances early in the second period, Wheeling took territorial control of the match by stealing the puck in the neutral zone and employing an effective forecheck that kept the disc inside Allen’s blue line. Forward John McCarron deflected a blue line wrist shot by defenseman Brett Stern past Gill to half the lead, 2-1 midway through the second period.
Allen reclaimed its two-goal lead, 3-1 midway through the third period when Roy snuck in deep and scored his fifth of the playoffs by tapping home a behind the net feed from former Nailer forward Casey Pierro-Zabotel during another Americans power play. 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.
Wheeling continued to attack and cut the lead to 3-2 with just over seven minutes left when forward Cody Wydo deflected a pass off Gill and into the net. But Gill recovered to make his two biggest saves of the series before co-captain Gary Steffes hit the empty net 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. His six goals against the Nailers tied him for second in goals by a player during a Finals competition.
“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 injured forward Dyson Stevenson and defensemen Danny Federico and David Makowski.
Defenseman Aaron Gens, a holdover from last year’s championship squad, went down with an injury in February but returned for the Western Conference Finals against Fort Wayne to help with his physical defensive presence.
“What an opportunity to make the playoff roster and I’m thankful every day for (Martinson) doing that and giving me a chance to battle back,” said Gens. “(When I returned) it was amazing and terrible at the same time because you lose a lot (not playing) in several months. But my teammates were there to help me out. Also, we have skating coaches and assistant coaches who were there for me, and I’m thanking to every one of them. It wasn’t easy for us this year. We beat some great hockey teams to be in this situation.
Allen finished the regular season with 89 points as the Western Conference’s fourth seed, 20 points behind the Missouri team that it upset in the conference semifinals. They overcame Idaho before beating Missouri in six games, then Fort Wayne in five to reach the Finals.
“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 teammate Spencer Asachuk and former Americans’ players Jamie Schaafsma, Brian McMillin, and Tyler and Trevor Ludwig as the franchise’s only three-time postseason championship winners. Goalies Joel Rumpel and Gill, forwards Arseneau, Steffes, Costello, and Stevenson, and defenseman Gens became two-time ECHL Kelly Cup champs with Allen.
Earlier in the series, the Americans jumped back in front, three games to two by winning Game Four 4-2 and Game Five 3-2 in sudden death overtime on Friday, June 3 and Sunday, 4 at WesBanco Arena in Wheeling, West Virginia, respectively. The Nailers had taken a two games to one lead with a 3-2 victory in Game Three on Wednesday, June 1 at WesBanco Arena. They had tied the series at a game apiece with a 7-6 Game Two victory in Allen on Sunday, May 29.
In the series opener, Allen grabbed the lead with a 5-3 victory Saturday, May 28 at the Allen Even Center.
The Kelly Cup trophy is named for Patrick J. Kelly, who presents the hardware each year to the postseason champion. Kelly was one of the founding fathers of the ECHL and the second inductee into the ECHL Hall of Fame in 2008. Kelly served as Commissioner for the league’s first eight seasons and was named Commissioner Emeritus in 1996, a title that he continues to hold.
Kelly, who is the only coach in history to lead the NHL’s Colorado Rockies (now the New Jersey Devils) into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1977-78, celebrated his 63rd season in hockey in 2015-16. He has coached 1,900 career games, winning 935. Kelly also coached in the Eastern Hockey League, the Southern Hockey League