ALLEN – Less than two minutes into Saturday’s Game 1 of the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals between the defending champion Allen Americans and the Wheeling (W. Va.) Nailers, fans in the Allen Event Center leapt to their feet in excitement thinking their team had scored, but it was a shot off the side of the net that triggered a false horn as the referee waived his arms emphatically to signal no goal.
Despite the tease, the Americans gave their fans several more opportunities for celebration as they rolled to a 4-1 lead in the second period behind a pair of goals from defenseman Tristan King and fended off a late, penalty-infused rally by the Nailers for a 5-3 victory to open the best-of-seven series.
Defeating Dallas Stars AA affiliate Idaho in seven games to open their ECHL (East Coast Hockey League) western conference playoff schedule, Allen beat Missouri in six games in the semifinals before defeating Fort Wayne in five games in the Western Conference finals to send it to the Kelly Cup Finals for the second consecutive year.
The Americans are attempting to lock down their fourth consecutive championship, winning CHL (Central Hockey League) titles in 2013 and 2014 before last season’s Kelly Cup title in Game 7 over the South Carolina Stingrays.
After a scoreless first period in which Allen held an 11-10 shots advantage, Allen coach Steve Martinson dismissed the notion of rust as Allen hasn’t played since last Saturday and said the Americans’ 0-of-2 power play performance was a product of trying to force the puck to Chad Costello – the reigning ECHL MVP with 103 points in 72 games (24 goals, 79 assists).
But in the second period, the flood gates opened and it didn’t take the Americans long as King ripped a rising slap shot on the power play from the right point above Wheeling keeper Brian Foster’s blocker on their first shot just 1:15 into the period.
“It was huge,” King, the 6-1 defenseman from Minneapolis, Minnesota said. “Zabby [Casey Pierro-Zabotel] was in front there taking away the goalie’s vision and I saw a little hole there and put it in. I think getting that first goal so quick, especially on the power play to start the period, was huge. I think it kind of took the wind out of their sails a little bit and we just took off from there.”
Stifling the Nailers (12-9) to just one shot through the first eight minutes of the second period, King pushed Allen’s lead to 2-0 as center Nikita Jevpalovs took the puck below goal line and dished to King, who was unchallenged and ready in the slot to quickly blast it by Foster with 7:50 left to play in the second frame.
“I’ve always liked to have defense that can jump into the play and make plays,” Martinson said King’s production. “If you look at our last series I thought the difference in the series is that our defense scores goals and theirs didn’t. That’s something that we need and want and want to continue to get.”
Things looked to be going smoothly for the Americans when the Nailers took their fourth penalty of the game after Allen had just scored on the previous power play, but Wheeling temporarily sucked the energy out of the arena with Shane Bakker’s short-handed goal from inside the right circle cutting the lead in half at 2-1 with just under five minutes remaining in the second.
However, the Americans were unfazed as it took them just 24 seconds to respond on the power play as Jevpalovs wafted down the right boards and found Greger Hanson all alone in the slot as he sniped the top-right corner of the net for his ECHL leading 12th playoff goal to give Allen the 3-1 advantage.
The Americans, who boasted the top playoff power play in the league at 26.6 percent and the top power play on the season at 21.1 percent, finished the game 2 of 4.
“Getting scored on short-handed there, anytime that happens you don’t feel too good about it, but we recovered well from it,” King said. “We scored right away on the same power play and I think that one line isn’t going, another steps up and fortunately all three lines were going, our defense played awesome and Hildebrand played great.”
Allen goalie Jake Hildebrand, who finished with 25 saves on 28 shots, earned the net for Game 1 after finishing off the final two games against Fort Wayne for Riley Gill, who took a puck to the knee and could not play on Saturday.
Hildebrand dealt with a plethora of Wheeling traffic throughout the game and withstood a furious rally by the Nailers in the penalty-laden third period.
“It’s really exciting,” the Michigan State product said of his chance to start the Kelly Cup Finals. “The way Gill was playing early in the playoffs, you couldn’t take him out. When a goalie gets hot, you have to ride him. I just wanted to make sure I was ready. I waited for my opportunity and I’m just trying to make the most of it. The way the team has been playing around me really helps me out too.”
The Americans padded their lead to 4-1 in the final minute of the second period as center Spencer Asuchak found his way to the slot and snuck a tip on the point shot from defenseman Aaron Gens.
Allen got itself into hot water midway through the third period with a penalty for too many men on the ice, allowing Wheeling to cut the Americans’ lead to 4-2 on Anton Zlobin’s one-timer from top left point that beat Hildebrand to the left post with just over 11 minutes left to play.
Then, Vincent Arseneau took an undisciplined cross-checking penalty just over a minute later and it took the Nailers, who were 2 of 4 on the man advantage, just six seconds to capitalize as John McCarron tucked his backhand shot from the slotpast Hildebrand to cut the lead to 4-3.
But the Americans stayed calm and with the Nailers pressing their offense stayed patient, eventually earning itself a 2-on-1 with 2:03 remaining with winger Gary Steffes freezing Foster with his patience before lifting a backhander past him to give Allen the 5-3 lead and all but secure the victory.
Costello, the ECHL leader in playoff points with 24 (4 goals, 20 assists), said the team’s goal was about staying with its structure and waiting for its chances to pounce.
“That’s kind of what we’re trying to do is play the same way and hopefully in a certain point of the game it will turn into goals,” Costello said. “It was the second period today and last series we did it in the third period a few times. We just try to keep playing good defense and we believe that will turn into good offense.”
The Kelly Cup Finals showdown between San Jose Sharks affiliate Allen and Pittsburg Penguins affiliate Wheeling is a matchup of this year’s Stanley Cup affiliates as San Jose and Pittsburg are set to face off against each other on Monday.
Game 2 in Allen starts today at 4:05 with Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5 at WesBanco Arena in West Virginia and if necessary, Game 6 and Game 7 will be in Allen.
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.