Just one game separates the Anchorage Wolverines from glory.
Buoyed by Raythan Robbins’ usual bullish goaltending, an edge in special teams and depth scoring that sustained them yet again, the Wolverines carved out a 6-2 victory Saturday over the St. Cloud (Minn.) Norsemen to sweep the best-of-3 Robertson Cup semifinal series in Blaine, Minn.
Next up: A winner-takes-all final against either the New Mexico Ice Wolves or New Jersey Titans on Tuesday.
The Wolverines’ run through the postseason – two sweeps in three series and an 8-1 record that is sitting on four straight victories – is impressive for any team, as is Anchorage’s 11 wins in the last 12 games dating back to the regular season.
Yet it is particularly improbable, not to mention magical, for a first-year expansion team like the Wolverines. But that’s where coach Mike Aikens’ crew finds itself – on the brink of brilliance.
Anchorage will try to become the first expansion team in 36 years to lift the Robertson Cup in its first season. The last club to pull that off was the Compuware Ambassadors (Mich.), whose 1986 title kicked off a string of five straight Cups.
— NAHL (@NAHLHockey) May 22, 2022
Saturday’s series clincher before a crowd of 1,198 at Fogerty Ice Arena-South featured ample assets from the Wolverines – chiefly Robbins, perfect special teams and scoring across the board.
Robbins, who Friday snuffed 48 shots to backstop a 2-1 OT win in Game 1, was up to his usual tricks again Saturday when he stopped 34 shots.
The Wolverines killed two Norsemen power plays Saturday after burning off all four Friday, a clean sheet that was particularly notable for club whose penalty killers wobbled in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Anchorage also bagged a power-play goal when Hunter Bischoff’s exquisite deflection opened the scoring in the first period.
Anchorage also prospered courtesy of scoring depth. Five different players scored goals – Bischoff struck twice – and 11 different players peppered the scoresheet.
Bischoff and Colton Friesen (one goal, one assist) have particularly elevated their games in the playoffs. Bischoff scored 13 goals in 56 regular-season games, yet now has five goals in nine playoff games. Friesen scored 11 goals in 60 regular-season games, yet he has six in the last nine games. Defenseman Campbell Cichosz and winger Jackson Crock on Saturday picked a fine time to register their first playoff goals.
— NAHL (@NAHLHockey) May 21, 2022
The other Anchorage goal came from the most usual of suspects. Talon Sigurdson’s 36 goals tied for second on the circuit in the regular season and Saturday the Arizona State-bound winger notched his fourth of the postseason to furnish a 3-1 lead with just 15 seconds left in the first period.
Bischoff opened the scoring on a power play. Stationed between the face-off circles in the bumper position, he found a soft spot between the opposing defense and forwards, and redirected Hayden Hennen’s one-timer. Friesen’s one-timer from the left circle off Cameron Morris’ feed into his wheelhouse made it 2-0 with four minutes to go in the first period. Morris’ helper extended his assist and point streaks to eight games.
But the public-address announced wasn’t finished announcing Friesen’s goal before Eagle River’s Brandon Lajoie, the UAA-bound winger, answered for St. Cloud just 17 seconds after Friesen scored. The goal was Lajoie’s fourth of the playoffs. Also, the teams had combined for three goals in just 16:21 after needing 68:53 to combined for three goals in Game 1.
Sigurdson restored Anchorage’s two-goal lead before period’s end, with help from Danny Reis and Aidan Westin, who made a smooth exchange along the left-wing boards. Westin, skating up the boards toward the blueline, left the puck for Reis, who raced in from the left point, discovered he enjoyed time and space at the left dot, and fed Sigurdson net-front. Sigurdson kept St. Cloud blueliner Evan Murr from tying up his stick and steered Reis’ pass behind goalie Tomas Bolo for a 3-1 cushion.
Central Division champion St. Cloud cut the margin to 3-2 on Broten Sabo’s second-period goal. (Pretty safe bet Sabo, a Minnesotan, is named after the Broten family, most likely Neil, who played on the Miracle On Ice U.S. Olympic team in 1980 and enjoyed a long career in the NHL. Oh, Alaska connection: Broten won the 1995 Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils, a club that included former UAA standout Mike Peluso).
Anyhow, Chihosz’s short-side rip from low on right wing – Bolo failed to seal his post with his left pad – and empty-net insurance goals from Bischoff and Krock sealed the deal.
And now the Anchorage Wolverines, who only played their first game eight months ago, find themselves improbably locked into the last game of the season.
Celly Cichosz! 🕺🏻 pic.twitter.com/8EasEbGXpO
— NAHL (@NAHLHockey) May 21, 2022