Saturday, June 4, 2011

Greatest playoff games #4: Ice 1, Detroit Vipers 0 (1999)

We are now down to the "final four" in our countdown of the greatest playoff games in Indianapolis hockey history. A lot of these nights are very memorable to those who lived them, for different reasons. Many of ours are championship moments, series-turning games that propelled the Indianapolis team to victory. 

This is significant for a few different reasons. 

In 1999, the Ice had undergone a complete makeover. Throughout much of the latter half of the decade, NHL teams had withdrawn their support from IHL teams and moved their affiliations to the rival American Hockey League. Meanwhile, the IHL was becoming more and more dominated by independent teams full of veteran free agents -- essentially becoming a "AAAA"-level league, one that was not quite on par with the NHL, but also becoming less and less of a developmental league. It was also becoming more and more costly to operate in without NHL affiliations to pay player costs.

Those two things converged on the Ice and eventually made it their final season in the league -- ending what would be a 15-year relationship with the IHL for the franchise that began as the Indianapolis Checkers in 1984 and were re-branded the Ice in 1988 after a year off. For the previous nine years, the vast majority of the Ice's roster was supplied by the parent Chicago Blackhawks, but they began to move their prospects to their new AHL affiliate, only partly stocking the Ice. The team had to sign a handful of free agents -- one of them was ex-Ice forward and NHL veteran Brian Noonan -- but it would be a transition year. They moved back to the Pepsi Coliseum after four full seasons of playing at Market Square Arena. Longtime coach Bob Ferguson moved on to a job in Florida, and ex-Ice defenseman Bruce Cassidy came back to lead the team, continuing a career that would lead him to a head coaching position in the NHL.

The buzzword was transition. Forty-two different players suited up in the Ice's familiar purple, black and white uniforms during the year. Some were veterans, like Noonan, Dale DeGray and ex-NHL defenseman Bryan Fogarty. Some were up-and-comers, like forward Dave Hymovitz, who had a breakout season. Some were familiar faces come back, like Craig Mills, who returned to Indianapolis after spending the season with Chicago -- both in the NHL and IHL. The team would have only two 20-goal scorers -- Hymovitz and Sylvain Cloutier. It would use five different goaltenders during the year. And it would go on a huge winning streak to nose out the Grand Rapids Griffins by two points and claim the final playoff spot in the 16-team league. 

At 33-37-12 and enduring so much change, not much was expected of this Ice team when postseason play began. The Ice hadn't won a playoff series since taking the Turner Cup in 1990, and had totaled 16 fewer points than their first-round foes, the Cincinnati Cyclones. The playoffs started with a 4-2 loss in Cincinnati, but caught some lightning when it built a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 2. But Cincinnati scored three times in four minutes to tie the game in the second, chasing starting goaltender Geoff Sarjeant and brought in Ice veteran Marc Lamothe. He had struggled in the regular season, with a 9-16-6 record and a 3.78 GAA. Lamothe had been a veteran in Indy, having split time with Jim Waite and Jani Hurme in previous years, but here was his chance. 

And he would from that moment on begin one of the most amazing shutout strings in Ice history. Lamothe faced 18 shots in that game against Cincinnati, turning them all away and setting the stage for Nathan Perrott's game-winner 2:41 into overtime. The next night, Todd Rohloff scored exactly halfway through the third period, while Lamothe turned aside 43 shots. He had stuffed the Cyclones, making 61 saves and posting 95:14 consecutive shutout minutes, and the Ice had won the best-of-3 series thanks to it.

That brought the Ice into a second-round series with the high-flying Detroit Vipers, and sets us up for #4 on our list of greatest playoff games. 

This might be listed "Greatest Playoff Theft." 

The best-of-5 series began at the Palace of Auburn Hills, as the Vipers had been the IHL's second-best team in the regular season, with 111 points and a 50-21-11 record. As independents, they had a ton of veterans, with six 20-goal scorers, led by Stan Drulia and Peter Ciavaglia. NHL veterans John Gruden and Craig Wolanin manned the blueline. And the goaltender? Another NHL vet in Andrei Trefilov, a player who had a big role with the Ice earlier in the year. But the Blackhawks traded him to the Calgary Flames partway through the year, and Trefilov was assigned to the Vipers. Interestingly, Geoff Sarjeant -- the Ice's goaltender at the end of the year -- had started the season in Detroit. 

A crowd of 5,196 in "Hockeytown" expected an easy Vipers victory on April 27, 1999. Detroit was well-rested, having earned a first-round bye while the Ice were gutting out three games against the Cyclones.

Trevilov manned his spot in net at one end of the Palace rink. Lamothe did so at the other. Two goaltenders who hadn't given up a goal in the postseason -- Trefilov hadn't played in the postseaon yet -- and it would take forever for them to blink.

They'd put on a duel for the ages. In the first period, Detroit's Stuart Malgunas took two penalties in the first four minutes, but Trefilov held the Ice at bay. Lamothe did the same on the other end, killing off penalties to Vince Williams and Nathan Perrott. 

Back and forth they went. Each goaltender stopped nine shots in the first period. The scoreboard lights at the Palace hadn't changed.

In the second, it was more of the same. The Ice and Vipers each had seven shots turned away. Detroit killed off two penalties, while Lamothe turned away every Vipers missive on a mid-period penalty to Marty Wilford. 

40 minutes. No goals. This might go on all night. 

It nearly did. Detroit got the better of the play in the third period, and had a golden opportunity when Ice defenseman Jeff Paul was sent off for holding at 5:52. Nothing doing. Lamothe turned aside every shot. Twelve shots in all at the Ice goaltender, but he had a force-field around him. 

A full game had been played. Nothing had been decided. The loneliest places were at the ends of the rinks. 

Detroit came after the Ice in the first OT, carrying the play more and more. Fifteen shots, but 15 saves. Brian Felsner and Peter Ciavaglia had each fired five shots. Yves Sarault fired six. Nothing. There were two four-on-four chances to allow the talented Vipers offense to show its stuff. 


80 minutes. No goals. Lamothe had turned aside 43 shots. Trevilov had turned aside 30. Nothing had gotten behind him. 

It was getting late in the northern Detroit suburbs. It being a Tuesday night, not many of the 5,196 had stayed around. The game moving past 11:00 when the puck dropped for the second overtime. Which team would crack first? It would be the Vipers. 

Young defenseman Bob Lachance would begin the game-winning play. Skating with the Ice's higest-scoring line of David Hymovitz, Marty Wilford and Craig Mills, Lachance fed Hymovitz. He sent a feed for Mills, who fired. 

It crossed the line. The red light went on. Game over. After 83 minutes and 57 seconds of hockey -- the 3:57 mark of the second OT -- the Ice streamed off the bench and surrounded Mills and Lamothe. The game ended just a shade inside four hours after the puck dropped, at 11:35 local time in Detroit.

The Ice had outlasted the Vipers 1-0. Marc Lamothe was amazing again. In three games -- two of which had gone to OT -- he had turned aside every shot he had faced. He stopped 106 consecutive shots, and had a shutout streak run to 179:11 -- just a few seconds shy of three full games. In three appearances, he had two victories in OT, two victories in 1-0 games and had been on the ice for only three goals scored by his team, yet had won every game. 

Things looked good for the Ice. They had won three straight playoff games by one goal and were flying high, but it would turn out to be their last hurrah as an IHL franchise. Lachance gave the Ice an early 1-0 lead in Game 2, but the shutout streak would be ended by Stefan Ustorf at 14:58 of the first period, and then the floodgates opened. Lamothe would get chased after giving up three goals in the first 6:54 of the second period -- at the time, the Ice trailed 4-2 -- and they went on to fall 7-2. Detroit won two one-goal games when the series returned to Indianapolis -- winning 3-2 in OT in Game 3 on Yves Sarault's goal 8:05 into OT, and 3-2 in Game 4 when the Ice turned the puck over in their own zone in the closing seconds and Stan Drulia beat Lamothe with a shot with six seconds left in regulation to bring about a sudden end to an Ice playoff year in which five of the seven games were decided by one goal, three in overtime.

Lamothe's shutout streak would end at 194:09 -- just a couple minutes shy of 10 full periods -- and be one of the most amazing runs in IHL history, and set a record for consecutive scoreless postseason minutes in Indianapolis -- eclipsing Hall of Famers like Terry Sawchuk, Dominik Hasek and Harry Lumley, as well as Joe Turner -- the IHL championship trophy's namesake -- and local legends like Kelly Hrudey, Rob Holland and Jim Waite.

Detroit would fall to Orlando in the Eastern Conference final series, and then Houston would defeat Orlando in the Turner Cup Finals. Lamothe would play several more years professionally -- mostly in the AHL, but he did make four NHL appearances five seasons apart with Chicago and Detroit. He is still active in Europe. Trefilov would win the Playoff MVP award in 2000 with the Chicago Wolves and would be the Playoff MVP, and then head to Europe for six more seasons.

It would also mean a sudden end to the Ice, as team owner Horn Chen moved the franchise into the lower-level Central Hockey League the next season -- a league Chen was one of the principal owners of, and whose league office shared space with Ice headquarters at the Fairgrounds. They would completely turn over the roster -- although final-year IHL Ice player Remi Royer would eventually resurface -- and begin a five-year run in that league. The IHL would cease to exist in two years, as a its stronger franchises -- Milwaukee, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Houston, Manitoba and Utah -- would be absorbed into the American Hockey League and the rest disbanded, victims of rising costs. 


Game 1: April 27, 1999 at The Palace of Auburn Hills

Indianapolis Ice 00001--1
Detroit Vipers00000--0

First Period
Penalties: Malgunas (D) slashing 1:06; Malgunas (D) interference 3:38; Williams (I) holding the stick 7:56; Bezeau (D) interference 10:56; Perrott (I) holding 17:28
Second Period
Penalties: Bezeau (D) roughing 3:38; Trefilov (D) delay of game 4:54; Herperger (I) roughing 9:35; Sarault (D) roughing 9:35; Wilford (I) hooking 10:44
Third Period
Penalties: Paul (I) high-sticking 5:52
First Overtime
Penalties: Williams (I) holding 8:41; Bezeau (D) holding 8:41; Wilford (I) roughing 14:28; Felsner (D) roughing 14:28
Second Overtime
IND-Mills 1 (Hymovitz, Lachance), 3:57
Penalties: none
Shots on goal: IND 9-7-7-7-2--32, DET 9-7-12-15-2--45
Goaltenders: IND-Lamothe (83:57, 45 saves, 0 GA), DET-Trefilov (83:57, 31 saves, 1 GA)
Power plays: IND 0-5, DET 0-4
Attendance: 5,196
Officials: R-Mike Langlois, L-Dave Kronenberg, James Garafaio

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