Never underestimate the power of glorious goaltending.
Friday, it sustained the expansion Anchorage Wolverines, which in large part is how they find themselves two victories from the improbable, hoisting the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup.
As late afternoon in Blaine, Minn., edged into early evening, the Wolverines’ wobbly penalty-killing unit found its equilibrium and Jackson Reineke thrust the overtime dagger. Yet it was masked man Raythan Robbins of Anchorage who made a 2-1 victory over the St. Cloud Norsemen even a possibility in the opener of the best-of-3 series.
The Norsemen wildly outshot the Wolverines by better than a 2-to-1 margin – 49-21 – but Robbins stifled 48 shots to push the Central Division champions to the brink of elimination.
He backstopped a penalty-killing unit that entered the junior circuit’s Final Four under siege. The Wolverines had surrendered eight power-play strikes on its opponents’ 22 chances with the man advantage, a subpar efficiency of just 63.6 percent. Granted, St. Cloud’s power play teetered into the series with a mere 12.0-percent efficiency, but the Wolverines snuffed all four Norsemen power plays Friday, including two in overtime.
“I don’t think the guys were really worried about it,” Robbins said by phone. “We’ve struggled on the PK some, but I don’t think it’s like we get a penalty and guys think, ‘This isn’t good, we’re going to get scored on.’ We had a game plan. Guys were blocking shots, they took sticks away front and let me see the puck.”
That perfect penalty-killing allowed the Wolverines to strike. Just 70 seconds after Anchorage coach Mike Aikens burned his timeout to permit his gassed club a breather, Reineke ended things by converting a 2-on-1 rush off assists from Hunter Schmitz and Collin Pederson. Schmitz led the attack through the neutral zone, carried the puck into the left circle and flicked a cross-ice pass that Reineke buried with a one-timed wrister past sprawling St. Cloud goalie Tomas Bolo. The right-handed Reineke pulled off a difficult maneuver that requires exceptional hand-eye coordination and precise timing — he had to let Schmitz’s pass go across his body before pulling the trigger – and is easily flubbed.
“I was just happy to see it go in,’’ Robbins said. “I was a little tired by then. Put it this way: It took me a long time to get to the celebration.”
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Beyond Robbins’ exploits, Anchorage’s two goal scorers in the game – Reineke and Colton Friesen, who opened the scoring midway through the first period – have proved postseason poster boy.
Friesen, the goal-scoring hero of a double-overtime win against the Minnesota Wilderness in the second round, opened the scoring midway through the first period. His goal came courtesy of helpers from Andy Ramsey and Cameron Morris, who extended his assist and point streaks to seven games.
Friesen scored 11 goals in 60 regular-season games. His strike Friday was his fifth goal in the last three games, and he leads the first-year club in playoff goals and points, with 5-3—8 totals in eight games. Reineke, meanwhile, scored 9-24—33 totals in 55 regular-season games, but now has 4-1—5 totals in eight playoff games.
The Norsemen, who include UAA-bound forward Brandon Lajoie of Eagle River (three shots Friday), countered Friesen’s first-period goal just 61 seconds later when Blake Perbix forged a 1-1 tie on a seemingly harmless shot that ticked off an Anchorage stick, fluttered a bit, his Robbins’ blocker and leaked through him for his only mistake of consequence. No worries.
“I just really didn’t get stressed out about it,” Robbins said. “I locked in a little bit more. What’s done is done.”
The game went without a goal for the next 57:35 – nearly the equivalent of a regulation game – before Reineke touched off celebration.
“We hung around and found a way to win,” Aikens said in his press conference.
The Norsemen, who are coached by former Alaska Avalanche (NAHL) bench boss Corey Millen, the former NHLer, do not seem like a team that will succumb easily when Game 2 arrives Saturday. Witness the shooting gallery they unlimbered Friday. And the 85 points they racked in the regular season, which tied for second on the 29-team circuit.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, have taken on the stamp of a team of destiny. They finished third in the Midwest Division, but they swept the second-place Springfield (Ill.) Jr. Blues on the road in three opening-round games before dispatching the Wilderness in four games to advance to the Robertson Cup. They are 7-1 in the playoffs, and they have seized 10 of their last 11 games dating back to the regular season. They are also 3-0 in playoff overtimes.
“We’re going with the flow, going with the ride,” Robbins said.
Oh, and they have a goaltender in Robbins who this postseason checks with a sublime 1.75 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. The 48 saves he made Friday and the 62 he made in the double OT win against the Wilderness and his two highest totals all season.
Guy like that comes in handy this time of year.