Late spring in north Texas means abundant rain leading to a dry, hot summer, graduation ceremonies leading to celebratory parties, and a trip to the championship round of the post-season playoffs leading to a hockey hardware celebration by the Allen Americans.
The three-time defending (CHL) Presidents and (ECHL) Kelly Cup champions qualified for their fourth straight Finals series by virtue of a raucous 6-4 victory over the Fort Wayne Komets on Sunday afternoon, May 22 before more than 5,000 screaming, delirious hockey fans. It was the team’s second “comeback” victory in less than 24 hours.
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. The award is named in recognition of Bruce Taylor, the founding father of the West Coast Hockey League.
“All our big players stepped up today and that led the way for our victory,” said Allen GM-Coach Steve Martinson, whose #4 seed Western Conference team upended a higher ranked team (#2 Forth Wayne) for the second straight series. “I’m looking forward to a day off (Monday) and then see who we play in the finals.”
The Americans will face the winner of the 28-year old ECHL’s Eastern Conference finals, which defending conference champion South Carolina leads three-games-to-two over Wheeling. Game Six of that series is scheduled for Monday night, May 23 in Charleston, SC. If Wheeling wins, it would necessitate a Game Seven later in the week.
The Americans 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. Allen, which defeated South Carolina in seven games last spring to cap their first season in the league, are following in the skate-steps of Toledo, which won the 1994 and 1995 Riley Cup Championships. Prior to last season, Allen captured the CHL Presidents Cup in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
“We feel great and super blessed to be returning to the ECHL Finals,” said co-captain Gary Steffes, a member of last year’s title 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.”
The Americans found a way to battle from behind throughout the weekend. On Saturday night, May 21, they trailed 5-2 after two periods but rallied in the third period and won the game in overtime. On Sunday, they into a 2-0 hole midway through the first period before taking a 4-2 lead through two periods. They managed to remain on top of the surging Komets, who outshot them by an astounding 48-24 margin in a desperate attempt to survive and return the series to Fort Wayne for Games Six and Seven.
“Fort Wayne is a tremendous team,” said 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.”
With Allen leading 4-3 in the third period, defenseman Eric Roy scored on the power play to make it 5-3. The goal chased rookie starting goalie Spencer Martin, who was replaced by Pat Nagle (who had played throughout the post-season for the Komets).
Then, after Fort Wayne forward Garrett Meurs scored with 3:19 left in regulation to make it 5-4, forward Greger Hanson netted his ECHL-leading 11th marker of the post season when he hit an empty net to make the final :13 easier for goalie Jake Hildebrand.
Hildebrand, starting in place of the injured Riley Gill, was superb between the pipes, finishing with 44 saves against a swarming Komets’ offense. Goalie Joel Rumpel also played against Fort Wayne in the series.
“You knew that (Fort Wayne) would keep coming,” Martinson said. “They’ve got a lot of skill up front and every line on their team is dangerous. It was a pressure game until the final empty-net goal. They’re a good team.”
Fort Wayne defenseman Cody Corbett (power play) and forward Shawn Szydlowski gave their team some hope for a Game Six back home with goals that made it 2-0 midway through the first period. Allen tied the score, 2-2 by the end of the opening session on forward Casey Pierro-Zabotel’s seventh goal of the postseason when he redirected home a shot by Roy, and the third red light in two games and fifth of the playoffs by defenseman David Makowski from 45 feet.
Allen grabbed a 4-2 lead with a pair of goals just :45 apart. Forward Spencer Asuchak (fourth) connected on a 12-foot wrister, and left wing Vincent Arseneau (sixth) finished off an odd-man rush.
Just over a minute into the third period, former Americans’ forward Jamie Schaafsma – who’d contributed to each of the previous three championships in Allen – cut the Americans’ lead to 4-3.
Allen snatched victory from the jaws of defeat the previous evening to take a three-games-to-one series lead with a 6-5 overtime victory on Saturday night, May 21. With 5,602 screaming fans watching at Allen Event Center, ECHL regular season scoring champ and league MVP Chad Costello assisted on four of Allen’s goals as the home team scored three markers in the third period to send the match to sudden death overtime. Forward Tristan King converted a Steffes feed from deep in the slot to make it 5-3. After Hanson connected on a backhand rebound following Makowski’s shot, Makowski beat Nagle from well inside the blue line to send the match into 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 J.P. Lafontaine collected a rebound of forward Dyson Stevenson’s shot in the left faceoff circle and slid it past Nagle to cap the emotional comeback triumph.
“(Stevenson) was along the boards, passed it to me and I kicked the puck back (to LaFontaine),” said co-captain Gary 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 this year (including Game Seven in their opening round victory over Idaho),” 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.
After Makowski opened the scoring with his first red light of the game nearly seven minutes into the first period, Fort Wayne defenseman Cody Sol tied it at 1-1 just :15 before the first intermission. Seeking to knot the series at two games each, the Komets jumped out to a 3-1 lead just over four minutes into the second period on goals by left wings Mike Embach and Garrett Thompson. After Steffes brought Allen to within a goal at 3-2, Thompson and Szydlowski struck to give the visitors a 5-2 cushion midway through the middle period.
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.
“We were truly blessed to come back in this game,” said Steffes. “The guys were focused between (the second and third) periods. (They were) calm, focused and confident. I don’t know that we were playing our best hockey for a stretch there, but we had a great intermission and responded well. I think the guys pulled together, were extremely encouraging, and came out with a lot of life and faith.”
“Heading into the third period and also the overtime, we were emphasizing to not feel sorry for ourselves and to battle with everything we’ve got,” 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.”
Fort Wayne battled back into the series, halving the host Americans’ lead at two-games-to-one with a hard-fought 2-1 victory on Thursday, May 19 before 5,075 spectators at Allen Event Center. Embach gave Fort Wayne a 2-0 lead with goals in the first and second period. After a third Komets’ goal was waved off due to goaltender interference, Steffes netted Allen’s only goal on a close-in redirection midway through the third session. Hildebrand, starting in place of the injured Gill, made 35 saves in an outstanding performance as Allen was outshot by a 37-27 count.
“I don’t think we had the same jump tonight (as previously in the series,” said Martinson. “We had a couple of open nets (to shoot at), their goalie (Nagle) made some great saves and we didn’t get the puck upstairs. We had pucks around the crease, we just need to get them into the net.
“We didn’t get a lot of chances because (Fort Wayne) is defending pretty hard, but we didn’t make the most of the chances we did have,” Martinson added. “I will make (some) changes for (Game Four) to get more speed into the lineup. We have to start better on Saturday evening. We have to play hungrier and this time of year, when you get opportunities you have to make them.”
Allen captured Game One by a 5-3 score on Friday, May 13 at Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne after co-captain Steffes, Hanson and Pierro-Zabotel gave the Americans a 3-0 first period lead over the host Komets. Steffes gave visiting Allen a 3-2 victory in Game Two with an overtime tip-in goal.