The reigning two-time CHL Presidents Cup Champion Allen Americans were in a hole, and realized their defensive corps would have to pull tighter on the reins in order to rein in the Ontario Reign.
Proving it could be bent but not broken, the Amerks’ seven man blueline unit of Aaron Gens, Justin Baker, Kevin Young, Nolan Descoteaux, Konrad Abeltshauser and twins Tyler and Trevor Ludwig raised their individual and collective levels of play beginning in Game 5 after falling into a three-games-to-one hole in their ECHL Western Conference Finals series with Ontario.
Suddenly, a defense that had surrendered 16 goals through the first four games and two periods clamped down and allowed just two red lights during the final seven periods of Games 5-through-7 to help win three straight and move into their first Kelly Cup championship series. As a result, Allen became just the fifth team in league history to win a series after trailing three-games-to-one.
Allen never trailed in a game after taking a 3-2 lead in the third period of Game 5 to touch off a five-goal rally and win 6-2 in Ontario, California and return the series back to north Texas. They followed that with 2-1 and 3-1 triumphs at home, respectively, to capture the West and claim the Bruce Taylor Trophy, named for the founding father of the West Coast Hockey League.
“I think one thing we found out about our team this year is that they never give up,” Americans GM-Coach Steve Martinson said after the 3-1 victory over the Reign. “They never quit.”
They never stopped playing rugged, physical defense against a team that outshot them in each of the final two games. Goalie Riley Gill stopped 29 of 30 shots in the clincher, including several outstanding saves from in close.
“Let’s talk about Gill (because) Gill won the series,” Ontario Coach Jason Christie said. “He stood on his head. That was the series right there.”
“We’d really put a lot of pressure on our goalies by giving up odd-man rushes, but we really cut that down in the last couple of games and got much better defensively,” said Martinson.
The Americans’ game ended well before the Eastern Conference Game 7 showdown in Toledo, Ohio (which started an hour earlier), where the host Walleye was trying to come back from a three-games-to-none deficit against South Carolina. But the Stingrays’ Joe Devin scored at 5:35 of the third overtime session to reach the Kelly Cup Finals. South Carolina defeated Reading (PA) and Forida Everblades to reach the Eastern finals, finishing the regular season with 97 points, eight behind East Division champ Florida.
Allen, which captured the Central Division regular season crown and finished just one point behind Toledo in the overall standings (and would have ceded home ice advantage), now will host South Carolina in Games 1, 2, and 3 of the best-of-seven series at the Allen Event Center this Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Game 4, as well as 5 and 6 (if necessary) will be played June 7, 9 and 10 in South Carolina, with a seventh game (if needed) set for Allen on Sunday, June 14. Allen disposed of Central Division foes Tulsa and Rapid City to reach the Western Conference final.
In the deciding match, Tyler Ludwig gave the Americans a 1-0 lead just over a minute into the game with a 30-foot wrist shot from the left wing boards that goalie Joe Cannata fanned on. Ontario’s Tristan King shoved a puck past Riley from a scrum in front of the net to tie the game with just under four minutes left in the middle period.
Allen grabbed the lead for good a few minutes later when high scoring forward Gary Steffes wristed a puck past Cannata from the slot following a pass from Baker. The goal was significant not only because it regained the lead for Allen, but because Cannatta had stoned Spencer Asuchak on a breakaway and Gens on a power play one timer from 20 feet early in the middle session.
Forward Chris Crane sent the capacity crowd into the warm night in a festive mood when he added an empty netter with just :35 remaining in regulation. “I think we’ve got a team that can win this,” Martinson concluded
The Americans stayed alive the previous evening in Game 6 when Chad Costello’s 25-foot wrist shot early in the third period gave Allen a 2-1 victory and tied the series at three games each. Greger Hanson had given Allen a 1-0 second period lead when he deflected a centering pass off an Ontario defenseman and into the net. Gill, who was spectacular down the stretch, made 29 saves as the Reign outshot the hosts, 30-21.
“I think that was our best defensive game of the series,” said Martinson. “ I thought we did a good job not giving up the odd-man rushes. That was the difference in the game. For me, the nice thing after this one is that I don’t have a lot of video to look at because I really didn’t think we made many mistakes. It would be nice to get (our power play) clicking and I thought we had a few opportunities (with the man advantages) but we couldn’t score.”
Less than 12 minutes from a series ouster, Allen staged a dramatic third period comeback with five unanswered goals to win, 6-2 in Game Five at Citizens Business Bank Arena. Trailing 2-1, Costello and Steffes scored less than a minute apart to take their first lead in the series, 3-2 since Game One. Asuchak scored twice around an empty netter from Crane, including the team’s first power play tally since the opener. “In (Game 4), they made good plays and we didn’t,” Martinson said after Gill made 22 saves and Allen outshot the Reign, 28-24. “I thought we played well in Game Two, but their goaltender (Cannata) kept making saves.”
Ontario had grabbed a three-games-to-one series stranglehold 24 hours earlier with another convincing 5-0 victory in Game Four. The host Reign scored three goals in a two-minute span late in the first period through the early part of Period Two. Gill and Joel Rumpel combined for 19 saves as Allen was outscored 12-1 over a three game span while going 0-for-12 with the man advantage. The Americans outshot their hosts, 31-24.
The Reign celebrated the series switch to Southern California with a 4-1 victory over Allen in Game Three on Thursday, May 21 to take a two games to one series lead. Defenseman Baker scored the only Allen goal in the first period, and Gill made 13 saves as Allen outshot their hosts, 22-17. “We’re not getting the bounces right now,” said Allen defenseman Gens. “I felt like we played a better game tonight (than in Game Two), but things aren’t going our way.”
Ontario tied the series at a game apiece by shutting down the potent Allen offense and winning Game Two, 3-0 at Allen Event Center on Monday, May 18. “We didn’t create enough traffic in front of (Ontario goalie) Cannata,” said Hanson after Allen yielded a power play goal and a shorthanded tally. “We didn’t test him enough.” Gill made 21 saves as Allen outshot their visitors, 35-23.
Facing off against an existing ECHL team in the playoffs for the first time in team history, Allen scored early and often – leading 4-1 after 20 minutes — to win Game One, 8-2 over the Ontario Reign at Allen Event Center. Costello scored a goal and handed out three helpers while Hanson added a pair of goals. “This was a big win for us,” said Steffes after goalie Gill made 26 saves as Allen was outshot for only the second time in the playoffs, 28-22. “We needed a big start to the series and we got a strong game from every player.”