LOVELAND, CO – All season long, the Colorado Eagles carved out a reputation as a big, tough, physical, hard-hitting team, with speed and skill up front, size on the back end, and consistent play between the pipes.
This was a team built not only for the months-long grind of a 72-game regular season, but for the unrelenting grind of the Kelly Cup playoffs, where the intensity is ratcheted up, hitting becomes more frequent, and sacrifice becomes the norm. You need 16 wins against the best teams the ECHL has to offer to bring home the Patrick J. Kelly Cup. And bring home the cup they did with a finals sweep over a very game South Carolina Stingrays squad.
This was a team you could never count out and the players believed they were never out of it, evidenced by their ability to win 10 games in the regular season when trailing entering the third period. No other team in the league hit double digits. Not only did they have the moxie to pull out games while trailing going into the third, come playoff time, they were unbeatable in overtime. Of the 16 games it took to win the coveted Kelly Cup, Colorado won six of them in OT. They never lost when the game entered the fourth, fifth or even sixth frame. What a run.
But the journey through the second half of the regular season wasn’t without its lows and challenges.
On January 20th, forward Jesse Mychan scored 2 goals in a 7-3 blowout loss at home to hapless Rapid City. Those proved to be the last 2 goals Mychan would score for the Eagles this season, as he packed up and took his talents to Germany and their second tier league, DEL2. Mychan wasn’t just another player either. He was more than a point-a-game guy with 37 points in just 34 games played. He finished tied for second in ECHL goal scoring the previous season. His penchant for tickling the twine you would think would have been missed. Yet it was not.
Soon thereafter, forward Josh Nicholls followed suit and headed to Europe to play in Austria. He, too, had averaged more than a point per game. The Eagles were undeterred. In fact, they rattled off a team-record 17 consecutive wins from January 25 before finally losing at home to eventual finals foe South Carolina on March 4. No other team in the entire ECHL had a winning streak stretching more than 9 games. Their 17-game run tied for the second longest in ECHL history.
An uneven stretch of games through late March and early April dropped Colorado out of first place in the tough Mountain Division. Allen got hot, Eagles’ stalwart between the pipes Clarke Saunders signed a 25-game player tryout agreement (PTO) with San Jose in the AHL, and several call-ups to their own AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, wreaked havoc on team chemistry. Saunders stayed with the Barracuda throughout their deep playoff run and never dressed for the Eagles again. Prior to Saunders leaving for San Jose, Eagles President and GM Chris Stewart made what probably amounted to be his most valuable signing of the season when he brought goaltender Lukas Hafner into the fold. Hafner had started the 2016-17 season with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the SPHL and was twice signed and released by the Alaska Aces in the last year before Stewart gave him a shot. It paid huge dividends, with Hafner going 14-2 in the playoffs and provided a steady presence between the pipes all the way through the finals.
Even though they suffered only four losses in four rounds of post-season hockey, it wasn’t quite as easy as the stat sheets portray. The Eagles surprisingly lost their first game of the playoffs, at home, against division foe Idaho. A very non-descript 4-2 loss in a game where they badly outplayed the Steelheads. The Eagles bounced back to win the next two (including game 2 in OT), but it was game four which put the rest of the league on notice. This team was never out of it. They never hung their heads on the bench. They were always in the game, regardless of the score. Down 5-2 with just 2:28 left in regulation, one would think the game was in the bag. Not these guys. Not this squad. Not the cardiac kids, as some locals began to refer to them as. The Eagles scored three times in the next 2:19 to tie the game. The momentum shift was gargantuan. Idaho didn’t stand a chance in the extra frame and playoff scoring leader Alex Belzile scored the winner just 41 seconds into overtime from a ridiculous angle along the goal line. Game five was a formality as Colorado pumped in six more goals for the second consecutive night.
Bring on the two-time defending champs.
Allen was riding high and had home-ice advantage. They were as previously stated the two-time defending Kelly Cup Champions. They had just dispatched Utah 4 games to 1 and had every right to feel confident heading into round two. Confidence can only take you so far, however, as the Eagles leapt out to a 3-0 series lead, dropped back-to-back games at home and then finished off Allen in their own barn. To be sure, there was going to be a new Kelly Cup Champion in 2017.
Toledo was a team unlike anything Colorado had seen throughout the 2016-2017 season. They scored more goals than any other team. They allowed fewer goals than any other team. Their 106 regular season points were season more than Colorado had managed. On paper, they seemed formidable. On the ice, not so much. Colorado was bigger, faster, more skilled, more intimidating and basically, just a better hockey team all-around.
Toledo reminded me of the 2013 Denver Broncos. Flashy. Skilled. They piled up points and had the best record in the league. They were fun to watch but were not built for the rigors of postseason hockey. The Eagles exposed the Walleye. Badly. To say they throttled the Walleye would be an understatement.
Yes, Colorado won the series in five games. Yes, Toledo forced one game them to a sixth period. Yes, their president and CEO Joe Napoli complained to the league after the series saying his team’s locker room looked like a M.A.S.H. unit and whined his team had to run through a pugilistic gauntlet. No, Toledo was not better than Colorado. Interestingly, Toledo took one more minor penalty than Colorado did in the five games.
While the Manchester Monarchs and South Carolina Stingrays sorted out their business in the East, the Eagles rested and were ready to go.
South Carolina shocked the league by making to the finals to face Colorado. They were the 7-seed coming out of the Eastern Conference, finished third in their division, and were the lowest scoring team in the playoffs from the East. Twice in the postseason they overcame 0-2 series deficits. Simply put, not many outside the organization thought they’d be playing for the Cup. While a four-game sweep in the finals sounds like it was terribly one-sided, the series was anything but. Four one-goal games. Two overtime thrillers. Twice the Eagles had to force OT with dramatic last-minute regulation goals.
Colorado was not shocked nor surprised to make it to the Kelly Cup Finals. They made it through the Western Conference gauntlet with confidence and surety. Perhaps a few around the league were surprised, but they shouldn’t have after the aforementioned 17-game winning streak. Their march to the finals had been swift. They were getting timely goaltending from Hafner and big goals from Belzile, Julien Nantel, Matt Garbowsky and All-ECHL First Team defenseman Matt Register. Of their 16 wins, Register scored the winner in five of them. No other defenseman league-wide had more than one. Not only did he have a proclivity for potting winners, he scored two more in the last minute of regulation to FORCE overtime. Deservedly so, he was named Most Valuable Player of the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
This version of the Colorado Eagles was not one of destiny. This version was one of hard work, great coaching from rookie Head Coach Aaron Schneekloth, and a burning desire to bring the Kelly Cup to Colorado and their fans for the first time.
This truly was a team effort and everyone bought in. Players who scored a lot of goals and accumulated a lot of points in the regular season sacrificed their own personal statistics for the good of the team. Players who in the past played more minutes were forced to sacrifice those minutes for the good of the team. Players who were used to being in the lineup, sat in the stands, waiting for their chance. All for the good of the team.
This wasn’t a team of destiny. It was a team of sacrifice. And everyone bought in.
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