With four of the best teams in major junior hockey convening in Saskatoon, things were bound to get interesting at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
For the second consecutive year (and the second time in tournament history) all four teams sport a 1-1 record through the first two games of head-to-head competition, ensuring that a tiebreaker will take place on Thursday night at the Credit Union Centre. Monday night contributed the latest entertaining twist of this Memorial Cup, as the Portland Winterhawks exploded for three straight goals to put away a furious comeback by the London Knights.
London, down 3-0 and with things looking bleak after a sweet goal by Portland's Ty Rattie, put its work boots on as you would expect Dale Hunter's team to do and made things really exciting in a hurry. Scott Harrington scored the 3-1 goal and it was followed by Bo Horvat making it a one-goal game late in the second period, setting up for a third period that won't soon be forgotten by those who follow junior hockey and the Memorial Cup.
Alex Broadhurst's tying goal in the early stages of the third period looked as if it would be a breaking point for the Winterhawks, but Portland's poise came to the fore.
The Winterhawks answered with three goals of their own - two of which, 23 seconds apart, came moments after the Knights tied the game. Derrick Pouliot and Chase De Leo did the permanent damage and made sure the Winterhawks would escape the first two games of the round robin with a split, but it didn't come easy with the game hanging in the balance.
The Syracuse Crunch still have not lost a game this postseason, but more importantly, the Springfield Falcons have yet to win a game in this conference semifinal series.
With a lot of ground to make up but requiring the focus to take things one game at a time, the Falcons entered last night's Game 3 at War Memorial Arena in a 2-0 series deficit but eager to get out to a fast start - and they did just that in the game's first five-plus minutes. Springfield carried the play early but the Crunch squelched any momentum for the visitors with a late first period goal from Richard Panik, one of many guys who has been strong for Syracuse in the series.
Panik had the eventual game-winner, Ondrej Palat recorded a three-point night and goaltender Cedrick Desjardins made 24 saves for his first shutout of the series, all part of a 3-0 win for the Crunch that has officially pushed the Falcons to the brink of elimination in these Calder Cup playoffs.
And last night's game was a bit of a reversal from the first two games of the series, in that their start felled them due to a lack of scoring rather than their opponents finding the back of the net. In Game 2, the Crunch scored twice in the first 1:15 of the game and in Game 1, Syracuse jumped out to a 4-1 lead after the first period. But that's where Game 3 was different; the Falcons had their chances in the opening stages of the game but could not beat Desjardins, and it really felt like the Crunch got some energy from weathering an early storm.
If there's one thing to help the Springfield Falcons tonight, it would be their situation: the margin for error has almost completely evaporated and though "must win" is tossed around like Oprah's favorite things, it's applicable here.
Facing a 2-0 series deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Falcons open a set of two (and potentially three, depending on the outcome) games this week at War Memorial Arena in Syracuse. In order to keep their great season going, the Falcons have to win this set of games and give themselves a chance with home ice advantage.
But before they can talk about specifics, they simply need to be the better team tonight in Game 3. The first two games of the series heavily favored the Crunch, who have several players left from the Norfolk Admirals' Calder Cup championship team a year ago. Syracuse has made plays off the rush while also neutralizing the Falcons' power play and their skill players - putting a lot of additional pressure on the defense and goaltending.
Syracuse, coming off a three-game sweep in round one, kept rolling in Game 1 of this series by jumping out to a 4-1 lead in the first period. What had been a rocking crowd inside the MassMutual Center was silenced very early, as the Falcons were under siege from the get-go and were uncharacteristically careless with the puck.
In the words of Springfield coach Brad Larsen, his club had a lot of people standing still in Game 1 and he wanted a much different result in Game 2.
Thus, it goes without saying that a better start is an absolute necessity for Springfield in Game 3.
Russia closed out its preliminary round schedule on Monday afternoon with the biggest offensive output of the 2013 IIHF World Hockey Championship.
After suffering two disappointing losses to France (2-1) and Finland (3-1) last week, the Russians needed to bounce back in their last two preliminary games and get the ship righted before the quarterfinals begin later this week. Step one was closing out a tight game with Slovakia on Sunday in which Russia led 2-1 after two periods, only to see the Slovaks come with a strong push early in the third period.
Veteran defenseman Denis Denisov scored a huge goal for Russia at 4:48 of the third period, answering Slovakia's brief flurry with the insurance tally to make it a 3-1 game. Ilya Bryzgalov - who has been solid for Russia in the tournament - held Slovakia off the board the rest of the way to earn an important victory for his club.
In that game, Blue Jackets center Artem Anisimov was yet again one of Russia's most consistent players in the middle of the ice. Not only did he win 10-of-15 face-offs in the game, he created some chances and had the attention of Slovakia's defense. Anisimov, who has played in all seven preliminary round games so far, logged 14:30 on the afternoon.
Fedor Tyutin was +1 in the victory over Slovakia and played 21:45 (the vast majority of it at even strength) alongside Denisov.
For the second consecutive game, a slow start doomed the Springfield Falcons and tonight's loss puts them in a tough spot after a pair of home games to open the series.
Brad Larsen said Friday night's Game 1 was littered with poor decision-making on his team's part and that a lot of his players were guilty of standing around and not getting engaged in the game. He expected a much different effort in Game 2, one that could split two games at the MassMutual Center and give them something to feel good about as the series shifts to War Memorial Arena in Syracuse next week.
A four-goal first period from the Crunch in Game 1 was - in many ways - a worst-case scenario in terms of Springfield opening up the series on home ice on the right note, but the start of Game 2 was a back-breaker.
Tyler Johnson, the AHL's regular season MVP coming off a multi-point effort in Game 1, paced Syracuse with a hat trick in Game 2 and was a complete difference-maker for the visitors, who took back home ice with a weekend sweep and have control of the conference semifinal series with the Falcons.
Richard Panik and Mike Angelidis scored two goals just 13 seconds apart to give the Crunch a 2-0 lead just 75 seconds into the game, taking the home crowd out of the game and helping Syracuse settle into its possession game. For the second straight night, the Falcons were unable to get out to a good start in their home rink and it ended up costing them dearly.
Championships never come easy and the playoffs aren't meant to be a cake walk, but the Springfield Falcons hit a big speed bump in Game 1 at the MassMutual Center.
This was a different type of game than they saw in the first round against Manchester, a team that plays a calculated, tight-checking style and prefers not to play off the rush. Springfield experienced pretty much the exact opposite last night, as the Crunch pushed the pace and tried to make plays off the rush on nearly every trip down the ice.
They spent a lot of time in the Falcons' zone in the opening period, which meant the Falcons did a lot of chasing and were unable to establish any territory of their own in the early going. Syracuse is known as a team that likes to shoot the puck and apply pressure whenever possible, and that was evident during a four-goal outburst in the first period which ultimately decided the hockey game.
Mark Barberio's rebound goal at 8:40 of the first period was the first of four in a 12-minute span for the Crunch. Tyler Johnson had a chance around the net on the very next shift and was denied, but the puck lay in the crease for Richard Panik to swoop in and chip home the rebound 20 seconds after Syracuse went ahead 1-0.
There's no time for predispositions or anything carrying over from a voluminous season series between the two: there were two meetings this season (a win for each club) and neither was particularly memorable, which may lend itself to a started-from-scratch, get-right-after-it type of playoff series beginning tonight at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
The Falcons have had a few days off just like the Crunch and should be well-rested for a crash course in "getting to know your opponent." Syracuse eliminated Portland in a three-game sweep last weekend, and Springfield needed a third overtime victory to knock out Manchester in four games.
Now, here we are for an Eastern Conference semifinal series that begins with back-to-back games this weekend in Springfield, then shifts to War Memorial Arena in Syracuse for the next three games before returning to The Nest for (if necessary) Games 6 and 7.
This figures to be the Falcons' biggest test of the season, but one that Brad Larsen's team certainly has the potential to meet and pass.
No disrespect to the United States' team in the IIHF World Championships, but with all of the offensive firepower on Russia's roster, a 3-3 tie entering the third period of their preliminary round match-up was already an upset.
The first two periods were back-and-forth, exciting hockey with four goals between the two teams in the first 14 minutes of the game - two of those coming off the stick of Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny, who has been anchoring the top line for Team USA. Russia opened the scoring, though, set up by a nice play from Blue Jackets center Artem Anisimov, who drew a delayed penalty in the offensive zone and proceeded to carry the puck along the half wall.
Anisimov made a quick dish to the left point where veteran defenseman Denis Denisov sent a one-time pass over to Anton Belov, who wired a one-time blast past U.S. goaltender Ben Bishop at 5:23 of the first period. That was just the start of the offense, as Stastny scored his two goals in the next eight minutes (back-to-back) to give the Americans a 2-1 lead.
Like many leads in this game, Team USA's lead in the first period did not last long. Set up deftly by Ilya Nikulin in the neutral zone, Ilya Kovalchuk snapped his tournament-best fifth goal of the Worlds by Bishop's blocker side to tie the game once again at 14:04.
Earlier this week, Falcons coach Brad Larsen thought about the possibility of playing the "defending champions" of the American Hockey League and seemed genuinely excited about it.
While the Syracuse Crunch didn't technically win the Calder Cup a year ago, several players on its roster played for the Norfolk Admirals before the Tampa Bay Lightning switched AHL affiliations in the offseason. The Admirals' run, fueled by many of the brightest young prospects in the Lightning organization, was as impressive as it was dominant - with the Admirals going on a record-setting win streak en route to the postseason.
Some of the players at the core of Norfolk's championship run - Cory Conacher up front and Radko Gudas and Mike Kostka on defense - have moved on to different organizations or are now full-time NHL players with the Lightning. But there remains a dynamic, committed group with the Crunch and it showed in a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
The Crunch also spent several weeks atop the league standings before Springfield and the Texas Stars caught fire.
This conference semifinal series will be a big test for the Falcons, who are coming off a four-game triumph over the structured, disciplined Manchester Monarchs - a team they know very well. Springfield knows less about the Crunch having played only two regular-season meetings against one another, but all it takes is one look at the stat sheet to know that Syracuse can pretty much score at-will.
Springfield won 5-3 over the Crunch at the MassMutual Center on Feb. 1 - a game that featured the top two top teams in the Eastern Conference at the time) and Syracuse earned the season split with a 3-0 win at War Memorial three weeks later.
The series gets underway with two games this weekend at The Nest, beginning with Game 1 on Friday night. Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday night before the series shifts to Syracuse for three games next week, and if necessary, Games 6 and 7 will be played in Springfield.
For two pretty historic teams in the AHL, it's a bit surprising that this will be their first ever meeting in the playoffs.
Here's the series schedule:
Game 1 – Friday, May 10, 7 p.m. MassMutual Center
Game 2 – Saturday, May 11, 7 p.m., MassMutual Center
Game 3 – Wednesday, May 15, 7 p.m., War Memorial Arena
Game 4 – Friday, May 17, 7 p.m., War Memorial Arena
Game 5 - Saturday, May 18, 7 p.m., War Memorial Arena (if necessary)
Game 6 - Tuesday, May 21, 7 p.m., MassMutual Center (if necessary)
Game 7 - Wednesday, May 22, 7 p.m., MassMutual Center (if necessary)