Friday, May 23, 2014

Clark Cup series thoughts

There will be more time for a greater look at what has been an amazing run for the Indiana Ice, but after having 48 hours to collect thoughts (and sleep off that LONG happy bus ride from Waterloo), a few loose ends from the Clark Cup series.

  • This was some of the best hockey I've witnessed, at any level, in a long time. Both teams played with such speed -- but also such discipline -- that there was very little room on the ice to make plays. When they did, the goaltending was pretty good between Cal Petersen and playoff MVP Jason Pawloski. There were a few breakdowns, but that happens when you have teams at this level. What's amazing is how few there were. 
  • In a short series, especially where matchups are key, it's always interesting to see who steps up. Mitch Hults was one. Scratched for a few games early in the postseason, he came alive in the Cup final. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 4 against Green Bay, but began a scoring streak in Game 2 of the final that came all the way through the final game -- scoring a key power play goal in Game 2 that tied the game and sent it into OT where Joe Sullivan could win it. In Games 3 and 4, he scored two nearly-identical goals, sniping shots from the left circle on cross-ice power play feeds from Scott Conway, and his Game 5 goal was a feat of hand-eye coordination. Brian Pinho flew into the slot and shot. Hults, who was posted up in front of the net, reached at the rebound and batted it out of the air over Petersen's glove and into the net. 
  • The 2OT game in Game 2 was the longest in USHL Ice history, and saw the Ice pepper Petersen with 62 shots. 
  • Speaking of guys stepping up, Joe Sullivan had two game-winning goals in the series. The line of he, Tyler Pham and Alex Talcott was one of the best -- if not the best -- trios for the Ice in the series. They controlled the Game 3 win, and delivered a goal in Game 4 when Sullivan won a puck battle off the wall, kept it away from two Waterloo defenders who had him bracketed, and then fired a shot off Petersen's pad. Talcott, who had a step on the defenseman in front, grabbed the puck, flipped it to his backhand and somehow reached around Petersen to stuff it into the net. 
  • The Ice did a great job of getting pucks on Petersen and creating traffic in front of the net the whole series. Petersen, a classic butterfly goalie, was adept at stopping everything along the ice, but the Talcott game-tying goal in the third period of Game 5 shows that just getting traffic in front isn't quite enough. 
  • Ryan Mantha had a really, really solid Game 5. The Ice didn't make a lot of midseason roster changes, but Mantha was one -- acquired from Sioux City in exchange for Jake Cass. The big, rugged blueliner was double-shifting (along with his partner Tim Shoup, who had a solid series) in the third period. He also had the second assist on Pinho's game-winning goal. 
  • Aidan Muir hadn't scored in the series, but he picked the right time to make a big play. With the game tied at 2-2, he took a feed from Mantha, skated across the line,  drew the defense to him and then dropped the puck to Brian Pinho. The drop pass changed the angle for Pinho just enough that he had a few inches of net to shoot at on the far post. He found those few inches between Petersen's pad and the post and rifled a shot into the corner, with Muir and a defenseman providing a partial screen on the play. A beautiful play, with a beautiful snipe, led to the championship-winning goal. 
  • One could make a case for a lot of players to be playoff MVP. Hults for scoring four goals in the series (and a team-high five in the playoffs), Scott Conway for leading the team with 11 playoff points, Sullivan for scoring two GWGs, assisting on the game-tying goal in Game 5, and centering an excellent two-way line. But it's hard to argue against Pawloski, who had a sub-2.00 GAA and allowed more than two goals only twice in the playoffs -- in the two losses to Waterloo in the final (3 in Game 1, 5 in Game 4). 
  • Pawloski's run in net was very similar to Jamie Morris' run for the CHL Ice in 2000. Both started the playoffs on the bench, came on in relief and never game up the net after that (save a few minutes for Pawloski at the end of Game 4). Pawloski's back-to-back shutouts set a USHL playoff record, and the three shutouts he and Hayden Stewart had in the Green Bay series were not only a league playoff record for one series, but a league Tier I record for shutouts in a playoff year. 
  • When Tyler Pham was handed the Clark Cup, he dove to his knees and hoisted it in celebration. The team followed him around the rink and passed the Cup back and forth. There is nothing like watching a team you've followed skate with joy after winning a championship, but especially this one. It overcame a tremendous amount of adversity -- being rebuilt significantly after finishing with the USHL's worst record a year ago, playing home games in two different rinks, starting the season 0-3-1. They managed to not just play through that, but dominate, finishing the year 42-11-7, and then going 9-3 in the playoffs. They led the USHL in shots, shots against, and goals against. A strong blueline and two excellent goaltenders in Pawloski and Stewart allowed the defensemen to take a few chances in the offensive zone with pinches, to create more offense, which gave this team another dimension. 
  • Coach Jeff Brown has now won two championships in three years. He led the St. Louis Flyers to the Tier II NAHL Robertson Cup title in 2012.
  • I was fortunate enough to be able to do color commentary for a couple of the games with Jim Mirabello, and said it on the air prior to the third period -- it seemed like the entire season was going to come down to the Ice and Waterloo, going deep into the final series for the Clark Cup. It did -- with the Cup being decided on a goal with 2:15 left. The two best, deepest teams in the USHL. Teams have had more talent -- the Ice 2012 team was flat-out loaded -- but no two teams in the league were as deep as these two. There were few weaknesses, and it showed. Both teams had speed, size, excellent bluelines and good balance up front with two high-end scoring lines and a couple of two-way/checking lines that could put the puck in the net and create chances. 
  • Also, a tip of the cap to the Ice front office staff, from owner Paul Skjodt through assistant GM Jason Burkman and equipment manager Darrin Flinchem, who have all been with the team since it began in the USHL in 2004 (and in the case of the latter two, with the CHL and IHL versions of the Ice going back to the 1990s), scouts Judd Brackett and Dan Sallows, and the rest of the staff that make everything happen behind the scenes. Each gamenight is a very heavily-coordinated operation requiring dozens of staff and volunteers. They've done it seamlessly and professionally for many years, and they also deserve kudos. 
  • Radio announcer Jim Mirabello wasn't able to be in Fargo in 2009, but he was in Waterloo for Game 5, and so perfectly conveyed the championship moment. He's another person who has been a part of the Ice since the beginning of the USHL franchise, and is a consummate pro. 
  • When you create a positive atmosphere around your team, people want to be around. Several former players dropped in during the playoffs. Jon Gillies made the trip to Waterloo. Torey Krug dropped the opening puck before Game 4. Sean Kuraly, John Doherty and several other ex-Ice players made appearances at games this playoff run.
  • One more tip of the cap -- to the Central Indiana hockey fans who have now had the chance to witness another championship team -- the ninth hockey team to call Indianapolis home and win a title, and the second for the Ice. More than 12,000 of you showed up for Pack the House Night, and the Ice topped 5,000 in attendance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse several times during the latter half of the season.
  • It's celebration time, now. For the players who are in school, they still have the last week or two to finish up before moving on, so the team is still in town. The Ice took the Clark Cup to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday. The players posed with the Cup at the yard of bricks and also took place in the Speedway champion's tradition of kissing the bricks (thanks, Dale Jarrett).
In future posts, we'll look at specific players, break down parts of the season and go back through the playoffs. But for now, bask in the title.

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