It is two days before the Allen Americans take on the Ontario Reign in the ECHL Western Conference Finals. This time of year is always exciting and Allen fans are so fortunate the team has been this far in the playoffs for three consecutive years. It is exciting because playoff hockey is the best of all sports, it gets more intense in each subsequent round as the series are between the best of the best, the interest from the media grows in each round as you see more and more stories about the team, players families and friends from near and far come to Allen to take in the games in person and the atmosphere in the Allen Event Center ramps up. Throw in the fact it is the first year in the ECHL for the Americans, the opponent (Ontario) is a new team for the Allen fans to see, the Central Division Champs are carrying the hopes of all seven teams that came from the CHL who have received little respect from many in the established ECHL and you have many subplots to observe. Bottom line is everyone who follows Allen Americans hockey needs to be at the AEC Sunday (4:05 p.m.) and Monday (7:05 p.m.) to see these games. It promises to be hockey at its best.
You may wonder how are things different for the team as they prepare for the series with Ontario. The fact is in terms of preparation Steve Martinson’s approach, which he learned early in his coaching career, is keep things the same and don’t make it special. Keep doing what got you to this point, work on the things you have been working on to improve but don’t create an environment where players are trying to do to much as that actually works against good performance. It is extra work for the coaching staff because they are not as familiar with Ontario as they were with first and second round opponents Tulsa and Rapid City. Every spare moment is spent reviewing video and devising a game plan for the series. For example, ten minutes after they got off the ice from practice yesterday both Steve Martinson and Erik Adams were in their office reviewing video. Allen and Ontario played two games in early February which is some help but both teams are very different now than they were in February. Even though the systems are the same the team you play in February is the not same team you play in the playoffs. For that reason the coaches spend more time on what has happened in the first two rounds of the playoffs than what happened in February.
The drills at practice are very similar to what they have been all season. There might be some extra work on a certain phase of the game such as the power play but the routine is the same as the regular season. The guys are all nursing bumps and bruises this time of year so the break between games gives everyone a few days to heal. Coach Martinson did share that the injury Rylan Schwartz sustained in the Rapid City series will keep him out of the line up for the rest of the playoffs. If you are interested in attending a practice but can’t because they are usually held during the day, Saturday may be an opportunity. Because of ice availability the practice time is scheduled for Saturday evening at 6:45 p.m. It should be a short practice so it may not be much but feel free to stop by the Community Rink and check it out.
Weather permitting there will be another tailgate party prior to the game on Sunday. It will start at 2:00 p.m. in front of the AEC and there will be activities for everyone. The team bus will be available for tours and if you have never been on the bus it is worth getting to the AEC early to see how the team and coaches travel. It will be an eye opener for sure. Bus driver, Monty Williams, should be available and can answer all of your questions about the bus which is affectionately known as “The Ol’ Girl” or “Big Red” depending on who you ask.
With the ECHL going to a two referee system for the next two rounds of the playoffs it will be important for teams to be disciplined and not take penalties away from the play. Ontario (17.67 PIM’s per game) and Allen (15.64 PIM’s per game) are the most penalized teams of the final four so they need to be aware there will be an extra pair of eyes watching for infractions and realize behavior that went unnoticed up to now will be seen and called.
I will do an in depth series preview tomorrow but you might enjoy this one which was published by the ECHL yesterday.
Allen is the first expansion team to make the Conference Finals since Idaho in 2004 while Ontario is making its first appearance in the Conference Finals in its fifth post season appearance.
The Americans eliminated Tulsa in five games in the Central Division Semifinals before dispatching Rapid City 4 games to 2 in the Central Division Finals. Allen led the ECHL in the regular season with 4.06 goals per game and the offensive attack has carried over to the postseason with a playoff-leading 4.27 goals per game average. The third period has been the Americans’ best during the playoffs as they have outscored their opponents 21-7 over the final 20 minutes. Greger Hanson leads Allen, and is tied for third overall in the playoffs, with 16 points (7g-9a) while Chad Costello (4g-11a), who won the ECHL regular-season scoring title with 125 points, and Spencer Asuchak (7g-8a) are tied for fifth with 15 points each. Riley Gill and Joel Rumpel have shared the goaltending duties for the Americans, with Gill recording five of the club’s eight wins through two rounds.
Ontario has reached the Western Conference Finals with a 4 games to 3 win over Colorado in the Pacific Division Semifinals, a series in which the Reign won both Games 6 and 7 on home ice, and a 4 games to 1 win over Utah in the Pacific Division Finals. The Reign went 22-9-5 on home ice during the regular season and have gone 5-1 at home during the playoffs, with five consecutive wins entering this series. Matt Register, who was named to the All-ECHL First Team and was runner-up for the Defenseman of the Year award, leads the Reign in the postseason with 14 points (6g-8a) while Garry Nunn, a late-season acquisition from Gwinnett, has added 13 points (5g-8a). In goal, Jussi Olkinuora has posted a 7-3 record in 11 appearances and ranks fourth with a 2.05 goals-against average.
Allen and Ontario met twice in the regular season, splitting a pair of meetings in Ontario in February.
DID YOU KNOW: The winner of the Western Conference Finals will be presented with the Bruce Taylor Trophy. It has been awarded to the Western Conference playoff champion, since 2005. Previously the Bruce Taylor Trophy was awarded to the playoff champion of the West Coast Hockey League (WCHL) until the league was absorbed by the ECHL in 2003. The WCHL’s championship trophy was known as the Taylor Cup. Bruce Taylor was the the founder of the league and also originally owned three of the six founding teams (Bakersfield, Fresno and Reno). The San Diego Gulls were by far the most successful postseason team in WCHL history, winning five of the eight Taylor Cup championships awarded. How ironic if a Steve Martinson coached Allen team would win this series with Ontario and receive the Bruce Taylor Trophy since Martinson was the coach of the San Diego Gulls when they won the Taylor Cup five times as champions of the WCHL. Martinson knew Taylor personally from the WCHL days and told me he was a great guy.