With over 700 fish caught (walleyes, muskie, northern pike, small mouth bass, largemouth bass) to go along with close encounters with feeding moose, eagles and ospreys, loons nesting, young ducks and geese it was truly a trip back to nature. Spending an early morning on a lake where you are the only ones around and all you hear is the sounds of birds and animals reminds you why so many hockey players from the northern states and Canada love to hunt, fish and being in the outdoors.
Since I am late to the Kelly Cup Finals party wanted to recap my thoughts on these two teams as they are the two teams that many Allen fans predicted would be in the finals.
ALLEN – Even though Allen dominated their division winning the title by a huge 25 point margin, were second in the ECHL in points and winning percentage and were the highest scoring team in the league some diminished the Americans accomplishments because it was in the upstart Central Division made up of seven former Central Hockey League teams. For Allen and the Central Division to get respect they would have to win against the established teams. It wasn’t easy as it took seven games and a great comeback after trailing Ontario 3-2 but the Western Conference title went a long way in sending the message about whether the Americans can compete with the rest of the ECHL.
SOUTH CAROLINA – It is hard to know where to start when talking about the Stingrays as they are truly a remarkable team. They lost nine of ten games in January and looked like they were destined to miss the playoffs. They won just 18 of their first 43 games. They then went on that amazing record-breaking streak where they won 13 straight away games and 23 straight games overall. The 23 game streak broke the old record by six games. South Carolina finished the season winning 27 of their last 29 games. I remember talking to coach Martinson when the Stingrays broke the old winning streak record of 17 and he shared how difficult it is to maintain a high level of performance in minor pro hockey over that amount of time with the normal ups and downs of a season, travel, and playing three games in three days. After all South Carolina lost a game on January 30 and didn’t lose again until March 28.
Allen has had an easier path to this point in the finals than South Carolina. The Americans easily won their division and had the best record in the Western Conference. With their amazing win streak the Stingrays did not even win their division and had to win the last game of the season to get the #2 seed by just one point. Allen has had home ice advantage in all four of their playoff series while South Carolina has not had home ice advantage since the first round. Allen won their first three rounds 4-1, 4-2 and 4-3 and has played just one overtime period. South Carolina won their first three rounds 4-3, 4-2 and 4-3, played seven overtime games for a total of thirteen overtime periods.
So how does Allen find themselves down 2-1 in the finals after the first three games at home? If you look at the statistics Allen is accomplishing many of the keys to victory as they are outshooting South Carolina (85-75), they are winning the special teams battle with Allen 3-10 on the power play and the Stingrays 0-9, and the Americans have cut down on penalties (Allen 32 minutes – South Carolina 44 minutes). What has hurt Allen in this series has been an Achilles heel all year and that is unforced turnovers, odd man rushes and breakaways. Against a team as talented as the Stingrays they will make you pay.
Had a chance to catch up with coach Martinson as the team was traveling to South Carolina and he confirmed that all healthy players are on the trip and nobody was left home.
Here is what he had to say about the game on Sunday, “We have to find some guys that can play harder against South Carolina’s top line,” Martinson said. “We had unforced turnovers twice last game with the Stingrays best players on the ice and they both led to goals. We have to be better. We had some good chances last game and we need to do more of what we did well.”
For some reason the Kelly Cup Finals have not been competitive series. In the last fifteen years the final has gone to seven games just one time and has been decided 4-1 nine times. You would have to put the game on Sunday in the must win category for Allen or this may be one of those short series.
Will have a complete game preview tomorrow but if there is a silver lining for the Americans it is the fact that in the playoffs the Stingrays have played much better on the road than at home. They have lost six of ten games at home including four of the five overtime games they have played at home.
The one thing you can be sure of with this group of Allen Americans players and coaches is they are tough, resilient and are at their best in this situation. You don’t win back to back championships without being able to rise to the occasion when the odds are stacked against you.
DID YOU KNOW: In four of the last five years the Kelly Cup Final went just five games (4-1) and in the other it went six games (4-2).