How does one juggle the gratification of advancing deeper into the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs with the sensation of nervous anticipation that the spotlight is about to get brighter and hotter?
That’s what the Allen Americans did in the moments after winning a taut 4-2 Game Six decision at the Allen Event Center on May 12 to eliminate Central Division rival Rapid City and advance to an ECHL Western Conference finals series with the Ontario (California) Reign.
The best-of-seven battle begins in Allen on Sunday, May 17, with the series winner advance to the final round against Eastern Conference champ South Carolina or Toledo.
“Yes, winning hockey games does get tougher as you advance – this Rapid City series was not easy,” said standout defenseman Aaron Gens after forward Chris Crane potted the game winner off a highlight reel setup by defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser with 11minutes left in regulation, and captain Jamie Schaafsma added insurance with his second red light of the evening (he also had an assist) six minutes later. “We’re looking forward to the challenge, emerging from our Central Division and the old CHL and meeting an existing ECHL opponent. You might say we’re out to prove something, and if we win, we make it to the finals against an ECHL opponent from the East (South Carolina or Toledo) that’s battle tested.”
The two-time defending CHL Presidents Cup champion Americans – who with their Central Division rivals joined the ECHL just before the 2014-15 season began – split a two-game series with Ontario this season. Allen won 5-3 on February 11 a day after dropping a 4-1 verdict, and they went 2-2-1 in five games against existing ECHL squads.
The Americans not only want to capture a third straight hockey chalice, they also want to prove that their CHL pedigree compares favorably with mainstay clubs from the existing ECHL such as Ontario, South Carolina and Toledo.
“I think everyone has their own motivation to stay hungry, to advance to the next level, and there are guys like me who are just hungry to win,” said Schaafsma, a mainstay on both of the President’s Cup title teams. “We’re not satisfied unless we’re winning, and we have the right mixture of guys to win. I think we proved something in (Game Six) and throughout the series against a very hungry Rapid City team.”
The Rush, who won the series opener in Allen and kept their hopes alive with a Game Five triumph in South Dakota on May 10, used a second half spurt to make the playoffs before coming from behind to upend Quad City in the opening round. Allen struggled at times against the Rush despite posting a 48-14-6-4 record for 106 points, one behind points champion Toledo.
“Ontario has a lot of depth and are more physical than what we saw from Rapid City,” said Americans general manager and head coach Steve Martinson, whose teams are 8-0 in playoff series during his three years behind the bench. “Like our team, they have a lot of players who have played in the AHL. It’ll be a hard-fought series, I can tell you that.”
Defenseman Nolan Descoteaux is optimistic heading into the next series based on how the Americans handled themselves in a Game Six that offered no margin for error. “Rapid City played desperate hockey, and we tried to get pucks in behind them and set up down low because and we have the best forwards in the league who can get it in deep and make plays,” said Descoteaux. “Even though it was tied 2-2 late in the game and we’re used to scoring a lot of goals, there wasn’t any frustration on the bench. Anything can happen, and it’s in the back of your mind that you don’t want to go to game 7.
“But our team’s leaders keep us on the right page,” he added. “They are phenomenal at keeping everyone on point and heading in the right direction. This team has such attention to detail and while we sometimes get away from the little things, we’re still buying into our system. We feel we have a team that can win it all with a great group of guys who are all together striving for the same goal.”
Greger Hanson and Spencer Asuchak each have an ECHL-leading seven goals, with Hanson’s 16 points ranking 3rd in post-season scoring. Power forward (6-foot-6) Asuchak and regular season ECHL scoring champion Chad Costello each have 15 points and are tied for 5th place. Another power forward, center Ian Schultz, has 11 points and is tied for 17th best, while sniper Gary Steffes has lit the lamp six times in the postseason.
In goal, Riley Gill posted all four wins in the Rapid City series after Joel Rumpel won three of the four games in an opening round conquest of Tulsa. On the rock-solid blueline, the 6-foot-6 Abeltshauser, Gens and Descoteaux are joined by twins Tyler and Trevor Ludwig, Kevin Young and Justin Baker.
In Game Five, the Americans fell behind 4-0 and 5-1 en route to dropping a 7-4 verdict on Mother’s Day night, May 10 at Rushmore Civic Center to force Game Six. Costello, Schaafsma and Crane scored 3rd period goals that closed the gap to 5-4 before the Rush added a pair of markers. Vincent Arseneau also scored for Allen while goalie Rumpel made 13 saves as Allen outshot their hosts, 31-20.
Allen tallied four times in the 3rd period for the second straight game to capture Game Four, 7-4 on May 9 and take a three-games-to-one lead over host Rapid City. Goals by Steffes, Hanson, Rylan Schwartz (who rejoined Allen from the AHL Worcester Sharks four days earlier) and Asuchak (shorthanded) highlighted the offensive onslaught. Hanson finished with two goals and two assists while Schultz and Crane each added red lights. “We wanted this one badly,” said Americans defenseman Gens. “The boys worked hard to earn this win, and (goalie Riley Gill) made the big saves in the third period (to finish with 17 stops) to keep the game out of reach.”
Despite leading the ECHL postseason in power play goals, Allen still had not struck with the man advantage on the road. “We haven’t had that many opportunities,” said Martinson. “In Game Three we scored two seconds after the power play expired, and that goal was directly set up by the power play. In many of the other situations we didn’t get a full two minutes so the road numbers are deceiving.
“It was great to get the win, but we need to play better defensively (as the series continues),” Martinson added. “It was frustrating to give up two goals on turnovers after we took a 3-2 lead (in the 2nd period) but then our offense took over. With so many skilled players we have lots of ways to score. Steffes went top shelf, Schwartz scored on a rebound, Hanson tipped one in, Asuchak’s shorthanded tally was a highlight reel goal, and Schultz’s goal came after some slick passing. Our depth helps us when we play on the road…all three lines are scoring threats.”
Two nights earlier with the series tied at a game apiece and host Rapid City entering the 3rd period of Game Three leading 1-0, visiting Allen erupted for four goals to win 4-1 on May 7 and take a two-games-to-one lead in the series. Defensemen Baker and Gens, along with Asuchak and Schultz each scored in a 12-minute span while goalie Gill made 24 saves. “Riley played great, making some big saves when we had defensive breakdowns and needed him to come through,” said Coach Martinson. “He stopped several breakaways and odd man rushes. Fortunately, in the 3rd period we settled down and didn’t give up any (scoring) chances – (Rapid City) didn’t have a shot (on goal) for most of the 3rd period.
In Game Two at the Allen Event Center May 2, the home team’s power play exploded for five goals in nine chances to as Allen evened the series at a game apiece with a resounding 8-1 victory. “We owed this to our fans,” said forward Hanson after scored two of the goals a man up as part of an explosive five-point night. “We let them down (in the series opener), and we made it a point to start strong and finish strong. It was a complete win all around.”
Defenseman Abeltshauser and forwards Asuchak and Costello also lit the light with the man advantage. Defenseman Tyler Ludwig collected four assists and Arseneau added an even strength marker as the Americans outshot the Rush, 54-23
“Our goaltender was great tonight,” said Schultz, who scored two even strength goals. “(Goalie Riley Gill) made the big stops (22 in all) when he had to and the guys played solid in front of him. This was a great bounce back win for us.”
Allen dropped the opener of the Central Division finals, 4-2 to Rapid City at Allen Event Center on May 1. Steffes scored in the 1st period to tie the game at 1-1, and Asuchak closed the gap to 3-2 with a power play red light in the 3rd session. Goalie Rumpel made 18 saves as Allen outshot the visitors, 38-22.
Some information for this story was obtained from Barry Janssen’s Allen Americans Blog.