LOVELAND, COLO. – Two ECHL seasons, two postseason appearances, and two Kelly Cup Championships are what the Colorado Eagles brought to the table from 2016 to 2018.
With such organizational success, Colorado now takes the unprecedented move from ECHL Champion to an American Hockey League franchise in 2018-19.
Colorado finished the 2017-18 regular season with a record of 48-18-4-2 (102 points), winning the Mountain Division and finishing second in the Western Conference. Only the Florida Everblades (112 pts), Toledo Walleye (105 pts), and South Carolina Stingrays (104 pts) finished with higher point totals. This season was also the second straight year Colorado advanced past the first round, after being eliminated in round one their first five years of ECHL postseason play. Finishing with the theme of twos, Colorado clinched their second division title this year as well (their first being the West Division crown in 2015-16).
The ’17-18 season had many key players stepping up for Colorado en route to their second consecutive championship. Forward Michael Joly led the league in goal scoring with 41 tallies, defenseman Matt Register won CCM Defenseman of the Year honors with 48 assists and 65 points, earning both men All-ECHL First Team honors. Rookie Joey Ratelle had 23 goals and 47 points in 70 games played, while mid-season additions Ryan Olsen and Cliff Watson (acquired via trade from Utah on February 15) provided more depth in the Eagles’ push to clinch the Mountain Division.
All three netminders utilized by the Eagles this year also contributed to Colorado’s success: Joe Cannata, Sam Brittain, and Lukas Hafner all started at least 20 games in goal during the regular season. Cannata went 21-5-1-1, with a 2.22 GAA and a .931 save percentage; Brittain posted a respectable 14-9-2-0 with a 3.19 GAA and a .897 save percentage; Hafner had an outstanding year, with a 13-4-1-1 record, 3.12 GAA, and a .897 save percentage to match Brittain’s.
The Eagles rode the man they call “Concrete Cannata” into the postseason, with Colorado drawing the Wichita Thunder in the Mountain Division Semifinal for round one. Colorado took the first three games of the series, bolstered by an overtime goal from rookie J.C. Beaudin in Game 1, and 5-2 & 4-2 victories in Games 2 and 3, respectively.
A 6-0 shutout in Game 4 and 5-4 OT victory in Game 5 breathed life into the Thunder’s playoff aspirations before the Eagles finished things off in Game 6.
With a 5-3 victory on the road, the Eagles took the series four games to two, moving onto the Mountain Division Final.
Round two brought with it a tough Idaho Steelheads squad, fresh off of the second-ever “reverse sweep” in ECHL playoff history — coming back from a 3-0 deficit in their first-round series with Allen before winning four straight and advancing to the Division Final against Colorado. Even though Cannata boasted a 4-1-1 record against Wichita, the Merrimack College product only produced a 3.09 GAA with a .856 save percentage. Cannata needed to step up his game to get by a deep, talented Idaho squad, and he delivered with two shutouts, a 1.00 GAA, and a .972 save percentage for the series. The Steelheads brought the same fortitude to the Eagles that got them to the second round, with games 1 and 4 remaining scoreless in regulation and only losing Game 3 by one goal (3-2). In spite of such fight from the Steelheads, Colorado swept Idaho four games to none. J.C. Beaudin, with four goals from round one, netted a couple of two-goal efforts against the Steelheads, carrying a league-leading eight goals into the Western Conference Final.
The third round presented a rough and ready opponent in the Central Division’s Fort Wayne Komets. Fresh off of an emotional series with division rival Toledo, the Komets dropped game 1 to Colorado, 3-2, behind a surging Michael Joly and his natural hat trick (a power-play goal, shorthanded goal, and overtime game-winning goal).
After Fort Wayne recovered in game 2 with a 3-2 victory of their own, both teams found themselves down two players after their fights during the warm-ups before the start of game 2.
After taking two of three games in Fort Wayne (games 3 through 5), Colorado dropped game 6 back in Loveland before a pivotal game 7 showdown. Down 3-1 halfway through the third period, Colorado scored two goals in five minutes to force overtime, completing the comeback effort after Ryan Olsen swatted a rebound into the net at 10:34 of the extra period.
The second straight Kelly Cup Finals for Colorado brought with it a second straight opponent from the South Division in the Florida Everblades (the Eagles faced the South Carolina Stingrays in the 2017 Kelly Cup Final). Florida didn’t necessarily provide as much physicality as Fort Wayne did the previous round, but the tension and dislike each team had for one another was still very palpable. Nothing set the tone for the series more than Eagles defenseman Gabriel Verpaelst and his open-ice hit on Florida forward Michael Kirkpatrick late in game 1. Kirkpatrick was more than likely knocked unconscious before he even hit the ice, and the raised ire of the Everblades through the rest of the contest. When the ink on the game sheet dried, there were multiple unsportsmanlike and game misconducts from both teams, and the night ended with 96 penalty minutes between the two squads.
After Florida’s Mitchell Heard scored a last-minute goal to give the Everblades a game 2 victory, the Final was all knotted up at one game apiece heading back to Florida.
The Everblades took two of the three games in Estero, with game 5 drubbing of the Eagles by a score of 5-0. Finding themselves in a 3-2 series hole heading back to Loveland, Colorado took a crucial game 6 by a score of 4-2, bolstered by two Joly goals in the last ECHL home game for the Eagles.
With game 7 shipping both franchises back to Florida, Colorado relied on their experience and playoff mettle with the deciding game on the road. Once again down midway through the third period, Colorado scored the game-tying and game-winning goals at 10:45 and 17:31 of the third, willing their way to their second consecutive Kelly Cup by a final score of 3-2.
Now, with a season for the ages in the books, the Colorado Eagles franchise takes another step forward by joining the American Hockey League as its 31st franchise. With an affiliation set with the Colorado Avalanche and an ECHL affiliate to be named soon, the Eagles face the task of rebuilding their roster almost from scratch while creating ties in close proximity to the Avalanche. With a jump from the CHL to the ECHL in 2011 and the resulting success these past two seasons, it will come as no surprise to the Colorado faithful if the Eagles become a winning franchise sooner than later in the AHL.
News of Note:
President and General Manager Chris Stewart, Head Coach Aaron Schneekloth, and Assistant Coach Ryan Tobler have all three helped build the Eagles organization into the club ready for the jump into the AHL next year. All three men have deep ties with Colorado: Stewart coached the Eagles from 2003 to 2011 in the Central Hockey League (CHL), winning two championships in 2005 and 2007. He carried over his head coaching duties into the ECHL (when the club joined the league in 2011) through the 2015-16 season before stepping down to become GM. Schneekloth took over as Head Coach in 2016 after three previous seasons as an assistant and seven previous seasons (five CHL, two ECHL) as a defenseman for the Eagles. Tobler joined Schneekloth’s coaching staff as an assistant for the 2016-17 season, six years removed from a six-year run (2004 to 2010) for the CHL Eagles as a forward.
Coach Schneekloth, after two Kelly Cups in two seasons at the helm for the Eagles, has been rumored as the front-runner for the AHL Head Coaching job. Schneekloth and current Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar spent time together in South Carolina as players during the 2001-02 season, and with Bednar as an assistant coach (with Schneekloth still playing) in 2002-03. Even so, Schneekloth has no illusions to personal relationships being cast aside for professional decisions.
In an interview with the Denver Post, Schneekloth stated: “For me, I feel like I’ve done everything I could to put myself to be a candidate for that position…I know I have a good relationship with Jared. But I also know this is one step below the NHL and I don’t feel he will over-step his boundaries. He’s going to allow them to make the best decision for their organization.”
The Eagles will have a number of faces not returning to their roster for the 2018-19 season, simply because a majority of the members were on either ECHL contracts or AHL contracts with the San Antonio Rampage. With San Antonio becoming the exclusive AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues next season, players under contract with the Rampage will remain within the St. Louis organization.
Here is an extensive list of the 2017-18 Colorado Eagles playoff roster (accurate as of June 20), stating who was under ECHL contract, AHL contract with San Antonio, and who was under a Colorado Avalanche contract and will remain with the organization in 2018-19.
|Travis Barron||Left Wing||19||Avalanche||Thru 2020-21|
|J.C. Beaudin||Center||21||Avalanche||Thru 2019-20|
|Drayson Bowman||Left Wing||29||ECHL||N/A|
|Sam Brittain||Goaltender||26||Rampage||Free Agent|
|Joe Cannata||Goaltender||28||Avalanche||Free Agent|
|Michael Joly||Right Wing||23||Rampage||Free Agent|
|Nicolas Meloche||Defense||20||Avalanche||Thru 2019-20|
|Julien Nantel||Left Wing||21||Avalanche||Thru 2018-19|
|Shawn St-Amant||Left Wing||21||Rampage||Free Agent|
|Brady Shaw||Right Wing||25||Rampage||Free Agent|
|Ben Storm||Defense/Wing||24||Rampage||Free Agent|
|Gabriel Verpaelst||Defense||24||Rampage||Free Agent|
C.C. Hawkley will continue his coverage of the Idaho Steelheads throughout the offseason and into the 2018-19 regular season for The Sin Bin. He will also be assuming the hosting duties for The Sin Bin’s flagship ECHL podcast, In The Corners, starting in July. Follow along on @SinBinIdaho for all his Steelheads updates!