2010 AFHL Playoffs
Mustangs parade could be one of many for London
Office workers in button-down shirts and ties rubbed elbows with teenagers wearing championship jerseys as thousands of fans lined downtown streets at lunchtime Tuesday, celebrating the London Mustangs' Stanley Cup victory.
Mustang players, coaches and staff paraded through city streets in a motorcade, joined by city and county officials.
Team Coach/GM Blake Wilson was the last Mustang in line, hoisting the Stanley Cup high in the air as the crowd roared. His car was surrounded by law enforcement officers and tailed closely by a tactical response team vehicle resembling a navy blue tank.
"This parade could be one of many to come for London," Wilson said in a victory speech.
With most of their team just barely old enough to legally drink the champagne being chugged in their dressing room following a win over Vancouver that clinched the Cup on Sunday, the Mustangs appear well positioned to take a run at many more championships.
Talented young players under the age of 22 include: Kyle Okposo, Jakub Voracek, Tyler Myers, Michael Del Zotto, Michael Grabner, Brandon Sutter, David Perron, Jamie McBain, and Patrik Berglund. Scoring leaders Zach Parise and Rick Nash are both 24.
"There's a lot of hard work and building and laying a foundation every year that goes into every year," said Wilson. "So we're going to enjoy this one... and come September we'll start building the foundation again so we can be called the AFHL's best dynasty team."
London police Capt. Bob Guidara said there were an estimated 150,000 along the parade route.
Jerone Jackson, an administrative support employee at London Electric Co., stepped outside his office building to join the throngs on his lunch break.
"It's my way to support the team, what they did for the city and what they did for the AFHL," Jackson said.
London, an unlikely hockey hotbed, beat the Vancouver Heroes 7-4, wrapping up the title on Sunday night.
As the Mustangs' players paraded through downtown, celebrating fans waved placards and pennants.
Ann Ebert of London waved a large blue Mustangs' flag during the parade. The 50-year-old said she's been a Mustangs fan since day one of the Inaugural Draft last year, and attended the Mustangs' first opening season game, when they lost to Vancouver 8-3.
When the Mustangs took on the Heroes in this year's Stanley Cup Finals, Ebert said she was nervous.
"But going into the weekend with such a huge lead in the series, I knew we were going to win (the Stanley Cup)," she said.
As the parade wound down, fans streamed into the parking lot at the Hilton London Ontario hotel for a victory rally.
The crowd erupted in applause for goalies Jonas Hiller, Jaroslav Halak, and Pekka Rinne, who formed the best goaltending trio in the league.
Blake Wilson told the thousands at the rally, "the 23 guys on this hockey team have the greatest heart and the greatest character and the greatest courage. We deserve to be celebrating the Cup."
FINALS: Vancouver Heroes (2) vs. London Mustangs (5)
Mustangs win Stanley Cup, defeat Heroes 7-4
As the final seconds ticked away, the magnitude of the moment began to overwhelm Mustangs' forward Rick Nash.
He bent over on the ice and tried to compose himself. Nothing could prepare him for a celebration like this.
"I couldn't breathe, and it wasn't because I was tired," Nash said Sunday night after lifting the AFHL Stanley Cup. "It was just too much. I was trying to hold off the tears."
Nash, who was drafted by London in the second round of the AFHL Inaugural Draft, let the tears flow as the clock finally hit zero, and his teammates mobbed him behind the net.
When Mustangs' forward Zach Parise was presented with the Stanley Cup, he kissed it before exultantly lifting it over his head. He then passed it to Nash as he tried to hold his own emotions in check.
"I was traded for halfway through the year," said Parise. "But that guy has been a true leader here since the first day of training camp."
"To lift the Cup, what a feeling," said Nash. "It's really been a bumpy ride with a great deal of adversity, but we definitely came through at the right time."
The fifth-seeded London Mustangs could not have written a much more dramatic story line as they beat the second-seeded Vancouver Heroes, to win the first ever AFHL Stanley Cup.
Blake Wilson is the first coach/GM to win the AFHL Stanley Cup.
"I couldn't put into words what's going on," said Wilson after the game. "It's amazing."
Less than a half-hour later, Wilson led his family through the halls of the Mustangs' home ice arena, interrupted briefly by a call from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"I guess that comes with the cup," Wilson said. "He said he was very happy for me and if I'm ever in the Ottawa area to stop by."
Blake Wilson began this epic journey last July when he was named coach/GM of the London Mustangs, and given the task of selecting 23 players at the AFHL's Inaugural Draft. With his first three picks, he drafted Marc-Andre Fleury [later traded], Rick Nash, and Jonas Hiller.
The Mustangs started off the regular season very well. They were in first place for the first several weeks until they slipped a little bit in the league standings. The Mustangs continued their solid play right into the AFHL All-Star Game, where Wilson was named assistant coach of the Canadian Conference All-Star Team.
London qualified for the post-season with the fifth seed and faced off against the fourth-seeded Oshawa City Leafs in the first round. The Leafs had the better offense on paper, but the Mustangs wouldn't let that deter them as their offense stepped up and contributed 36 points in the series. Their goaltending trio also made a statement in this matchup. Jonas Hiller, Jaroslav Halak, and Pekka Rinne posted 5 wins and a 1.48 GAA in helping the Mustangs advance to the second round.
The Buffalo Phantoms were their opponents in the second round. The Phantoms boasted the best record in the league and they were the last team that anyone would want to face in the playoffs. The Mustangs refused to let adversity get the best of them, and defeated the Phantoms 5-4 in an overtime thriller.
The London Mustangs were red-hot heading into the Stanley Cup Finals where they would meet the second-seeded Vancouver Heroes, a team with a lot of weapons.
London got it going early in the Finals against Vancouver, getting goals from Brandon Sutter and rookie defenseman Tyler Mylers, to put them up 2-0 in the first game.
In the second game, Rick Nash and Viktor Stalberg scored two goals each for the Mustangs. Patrice Bergeron also potted a goal that got the Mustangs really buzzing.
Bergeron skated to Rick Nash's pass at the bottom of the left circle and, with Tomas Kaberle hanging off his left shoulder, slipped the puck through a narrow opening between Miller's right pad and the goal post at the midway mark of the game.
Brandon Sutter scored two more goals in games 3 and 4, giving the Mustangs an 8-2 lead heading into the weekend where they would play patient but aggressive.
In Sunday's finale, the London defense got the job done, and shut down Vancouver's offense to seal the deal.
Heroes' forward Henrik Sedin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. Sedin never smiled as he accepted the MVP trophy to the boos of the London fans and the applause of the Mustangs' players, immediately leaving the ice in tears.
"It's tough to lose like that," Sedin said after receiving his trophy. "It was really tough to see them [the Mustangs] cheer... This is not the one you want. You want the big silver one."
Rick Nash said Sedin deserved the award and, "I got the one I wanted."
"It was definitely a great run getting to the finals," Heroes' coach/GM Ben Rauscher said. "We didn't finish the job and we're a little disappointed about that... We will be back."
Kyle Okposo thinks the Mustangs will be back, too, with most of their key players still on the team roster next year.
"It's not over for us," Okposo said. "We're going to try to build on this. We have a dynasty team here."
The Mustangs will celebrate with their fans Tuesday during a 15-block parade that will end downtown at the Hilton London Ontario hotel, which is right next to the London Internation Airport (YXU).
Rick Nash, now a conquering hero instead of a sentimental favorite, will be there with his family. Tyler Myers, who will probably win the AFHL Calder Trophy after a phenomenal rookie year, will celebrate also with his family and close friends.
Coach Wilson, who lived in London his entire life, except for a few months of work experience during school, will be there representing some thousands of fans who will not be able to make it due to work during the day.
More than 100,000 people are expected to join the parade, which will feature most, probably all, of the Mustangs' players.
"I said from Christmas on that this is a magical team," Wilson said. "We might have a better team one day, but this is a magical team. Our fans deserve everything that this team has accomplished this year."
As for the Heroes, they returned to Vancouver thinking of what might have been after falling one victory short of the AFHL Stanley Cup.
The Heroes came into the weekend a confident bunch but left in tears of sorrow and frustration following a week of unnecessary penalties and insufficient offense. The Heroes were outscored in 7 of the 12 stat categories in the Stanley Cup loss.
"All that aside, I am very proud of this team," Ben Rauscher said. "We added some key players and improved our roster over the year. The team had a tremendous year. And like I said before... We will be back."
Heroes or Mustangs? Who will bring home the Cup?
TheAFHL.com asked visitors the question that's on every hockey fan's mind: who's going to be the last team standing? We received hundreds of responses from users on both sides of the ice with some of the most interesting ones below.
The Mustangs will win because of the tough matchups they won against the Leafs and Phantoms. They know what it takes to win and probably want it a little more than Vancouver. Mustangs win 7-5.
Vancouver is a team of veterans that like to play a defense-oriented game first and force teams into making mistakes. London is a scrappy team that has a lot of speed. Vancouver can't handle speed. Fort Drum was proof of that. Also, London has had a terrific power play in the playoffs while Vancouver was average. If their goalies are able to play every game and London can keep Vancouver from completely dominating the offensive stat categories, they will win convincingly. London 6-4.
Ryan Miller is the best goalie in the league. The Mustangs lack the offensive talent as well as defensive strategy that Vancouver has come to master. Vancouver has proven goal scorers in the Sedin Twins, Staal, Gagne, and Boyes, as well as muckers with experience such as Sean Avery. With talent like this the Heroes work the neutral ice trap better than any other team in the league including London.
Is there any question? The Vancouver Heroes are going to crush the London Mustangs. Heroes win 10-0.
-- Ryan Dean , Calgary, Alberta
Vancouver is much faster, has a better goalie, and can check with anyone in the league. London has played two tough series and are somewhat dinged up going into the finals. Vancouver should win the series 8-1.
The Heroes take this series 7-3 (o.k. maybe 6-3) and here's why: 1.) 2nd and 3rd line match ups - Vancouver has been the deepest team since Manhattan was eliminated. They simply wore down Hollywood's offensive weapons. 2.) Goaltending wins championships - There shouldn't be any question in anyone's mind that Vancouver has, by far, the better goaltending duo. 3.) Ready for the Cup - Not to downplay London's desire to drink from Lord Stanley's Cup, but Vancouver was built for this moment and the Sedin Twins are an advantage.
London. They've got incredible firepower (ask the Phantoms), and so far, Vancouver (and Miller) hasn't seen anything like that. Plus, they are incredible defensively (and in goal). And with a London team that scores by capitalizing on mistakes, London's tallies will be few and far between. London just can't match up.
It's all about desire and the bottom line is the Heroes want it more. Every Heroe is throwing punishing hits. I don't think the Mustangs have seen that kind of relentless pursuit of the puck yet, and I think it will lead to some uncharacteristic turnovers by the London D. On the other side, London's Defense is more physical than Buffalo or Oshawa City so London won't be able to puch guys like Staal and Gagne around. I like Vancouver 6-4.
2nd ROUND: Buffalo Phantoms (1) vs. London Mustangs (5)
Theodore meltdown costs Buffalo game, London going to Finals
Jose Theodore gave up three goals on the first 10 shots he faced in the deciding game of the second round, which lead to a 5-4 London Mustangs victory over the Buffalo Phantoms.
The Mustangs now will face the Vancouver Heroes in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, starting Monday night.
"It was an unbelievable series," Mustangs forward Zach Parise said. "It could have gone either way. I'm just thankful we got kind of lucky at end and held on."
"We came out timid and that was the difference of the game. I was very surprised how we came out," Phantoms captain Sidney Crosby said. "We were tentative, we sat back and waited, but they came out hard against us."
The Phantoms offense was ice cold this week, losing all offensive categories to the Mustangs. Crosby scored two goals on Sunday, but it just wasn't enough to win.
"We were back on our heels. It's tough to spot them three," said Crosby. "It's very disappointing and frustrating. We had just as good a team, if not better than the Mustangs."
Michael Del Zotto started it by beating Theodore on a one-timer from the center point just inside the blue line. As the 37th straight sellout at the Mustangs' home ice arena roared, Theodore sat up on his knees and stared ahead in disbelief, then dropped his back to the ice in agony.
Buffalo's second penalty -- roughing by Dustin Penner, who was scoreless in the series -- was even more devastating, partly because it was silly but mainly because it gave London a great scoring chance with just 16 seconds left in the first game.
Parise scored with six seconds left, raised his arms and head to the roof and was met in the corner by all four teammates. The four Phantoms skaters stiffly drifted up the ice several feet apart, while Theodore stood motionless in the goal. The hometown horn operator pushed the button so long it seemed to be jammed.
"The first half of the matchup, I thought our passion was unbelievable," Mustangs' coach/GM Blake Wilson. "Then we got a little sloppy on Wednesday and gave them a couple of easy goals. That gave them some momentum and they built on that going into the weekend."
Buffalo had practically nothing in the weekend games. They had only 15 shots on goal during the weekend. They failed to score on their final 7 powerplays of the series.
Going into Sunday's finale, the matchup was tied 4-4. Phantoms goalie Jose Theodore gave up three goals on the first 10 shots he faced, giving the Mustangs a 5-4 lead.
The Phantoms only got three more shots at Jonas Hiller before pulling their goalie for a sixth attacker with 1:20 left in the game. They failed to punch it in on a good flurry in front of the net with 21.2 seconds to go, then Nicklas Lidstrom fired a shot that hit Hiller and clanged off the right post with eight seconds left.
"I tried to get my body over there," Hiller said. "It hit me on the hip and it was like slow motion as it went toward the post."
Said Lidstrom: "I didn't see it, but I heard it hit the post."
The Mustangs knocked the puck to the other end of the ice as referee Don Koharski signaled that the series was over, and the Mustangs poured off the bench triggering a postgame celebration that was filled with as much relief as joy.
"There's so much pressure to perform," Mustangs forward Rick Nash said. "As you get older, you turn that into a positive and try to have fun with it."
It was a quick ending for the Phantoms, who finished the regular season with the best record in the league. They dominated the Chiefs in the first round, but could not solve the Mustangs' tough, close checking in the second round.
"They have a great hockey team, but I still think we could have beaten them if Theodore didn't get blown up on Sunday," said Phantoms coach/GM Daryn Beckman. "It was a heartbreaking game. I thought we deserved better."
After giving up three goals on Sunday, a lot of people felt it was Theodore's fault for the loss.
"At the end of the day, Theodore choked and the Phantoms lost," said Mustangs coach/GM Blake Wilson. "It's up to them to figure out who's fault it was. He [coach Beckman] decided to play Theodore on Sunday. He didn't have to do that. But he wanted to take a risk to win the shutouts category. It backfired on him and costed him the SV% category, and that ultimately costed them the game."
Beckman talked about the tie-breaker rule and said he wasn't aware of the specifics. He was under the impression that a tie-breaker is based on goals scored rather than winning percentage/playoff seed. Had he known the later, he would have went a different route with Theodore.
"Everybody makes mistakes," Wilson said. "But when a shot at the Cup is on the line, as a coach, you have to be careful and make good decisions. Look, I think he's a great coach. But if I were him, I wouldn't have played Theodore. And I'm not a cocky guy, I never have been, I'm just confident in my coaching ability."
"I don't think that's anything we're going to look back at and say it cost us the series," Phantoms forward Paul Stastny said. "You have to score goals to win games, and we didn't score enough. One reason for that is injuries. We had seven of our starters on the shelf heading into the weekend games."
From the start of this series, Milan Michalek and Denis Grebeshkov have been out due to injury and they lost Tim Connolly, Ryan Callahan, and Chuck Kobasew in Games 3 and 4 against the Mustangs.
"Everybody's disappointed; no question about it," Buffalo forward Marian Hossa said. "But there's not a lot you can do about it. We gave it our all. We talked about that, to go out there and no matter what happens, to keep trying, and everyone did."
Barring any surprise offseason moves, the Phantoms will have virtually the same cast of skaters when they open 2010-11 season in the fall.
But with Sidney Crosby, one of the best players in the game today, the Phantoms are expected to receive a lot of trade offers involving him.
"I don't even want to think about being traded," Crosby said. "I've made it clear that Buffalo is the place I would definitely like to play at the start of next season. It's fun to play with guys who want to win and who care about winning and an organization that cares about winning."
The London Mustangs will be trying to become the first AFHL Stanley Cup champions against the Vancouver Heroes in the final matchup of this year's playoffs.
"It was a nice step to win against the first place Buffalo Phantoms, but it's far from over," Jonas Hiller said. "I just feel we made the next step to the goal. We still have to win one more series."
"It's about 20 guys doing the work needed to win," said Wilson. "This isn't about money, it's about winning and being the best."
2nd ROUND: Vancouver Heroes (2) vs. Hollywood Stars (3)
Stars fall to Heroes, bring Stanley Cup finals to Vancouver
In their second round matchup against the Hollywood Stars, the Heroes' offense put up a whopping 40 points, 13 of which came on the powerplay. Ryan Miller and Ilya Bryzgalov backstopped the Heroes with two wins, 2.37 GAA, 137 saves, and a .919 SV%, in this classic series between the two of the top-three-seeded teams in the playoffs.
"We always have found a way to find the heroes at the right time and in the right games, especially now in the playoffs. It's a great feeling because, this is a team with a capital T." said Heroes' goaltender Ryan Miller.
"I feel proud of this team, but we still have a long way to go," said Heroes' GM/coach Ben Rauscher. "We haven't won anything yet. We weren't playing for that [Prince of Wales] trophy. We only care about one trophy. Our goal is to win the AFHL Stanley Cup."
The Heroes' trip to play for one of the most coveted prizes in fantasy sports did not come without a fight from the gritty Hollywood Stars, who kept the series close from beginning to end.
The Stars won only the powerplay points category, but the rest of the points on offense and goaltending.
"We battled. We did a lot of good things out there. But when you get this close, it's very disappointing," said Stars' Ryan Smyth, who scored five points in the matchup. "We had quite a few chances throughout the matchup and the bounces went their way. We had a lot of missed opportunities."
The Heroes were able get control of the matchup early by constantly swarming the puck on defense and refusing to allow the Stars' speed advantage to become a factor.
By dominating the tempo, Vancouver was able to dominate most of the stat categories right from the beginning.
"We knew if we played our game that we'd have a chance to win," Heroes' Eric Staal said. "We couldn't get into a tie-breaker with them on Sunday. The Vancouver Heroes take pride in defensive hockey too."
Jarome Iginla said Hollywood felt stifled by Vancouver's defense.
"There was not a lot of room to move," said Iginla, who failed to score a goal in the series.
"There are a lot of talented teams in the Amazing Fantasy Hockey League, and there are probably teams with a higher skill level than our team... but I have never seen a group that pulls the way this group does," Heroes' coach Ben Rauscher said. "They take an awful lot of pride in not cracking."
The 18,001 fans began sensing the victory halfway through Sunday as they began chanting, "We want the Cup!" In the game's closing minutes they screamed "Ry-an! Ry-an!" in honor of goaltender Ryan Miller.
Miller, who has gone a long way to erase his reputation for melting under pressure at the beginning of the last round, made 52 saves along with Bryzgalov's 85 for a 137 saves total.
"Everyone knows the things that have been said about him in the opening game against the Killers, but he's played so well for us this year," Heroes' defenseman Dan Boyle said. "We never had any doubt he could play this way."
Martin Brodeur, whose reputation is one of the greatest goalies in hockey history, made 72 saves. Hollywood did not have a second starting goalie to match Vancouver's 137 saves output.
Brodeur played good for most of the series. He was out of position on the first Vancouver goal, getting faked badly by Daniel Sedin and being behind the net on Jason Pominville's second goal.
Halfway through the series, with Brodeur looking to his right at Simon Gagne, Daniel Sedin smacked the puck to the goalie's left for his second goal of the matchup.
The Stars bounced back as Martin St. Louis stripped the puck from Daniel Sedin in the neutral zone and scored on a two on one with Mike Ribeiro. Daniel was angry about the goal, and was seen arguing with one of the refs about a missed penalty call on the play.
A few shifts later, the fiery redhead scored his third goal of the series, by flat out beating Brodeur, shifting the momentum back in favor of Vancouver.
Sedin charged untouched up the left side and went right at the goal, faking left and getting Brodeur to commit as he pulled the puck back. Falling, Daniel slid the puck through the center of the crease and into the net, turning Vancouver's home arena into a madhouse.
It was quite a moment for Daniel, whom joined the Heroes halfway through the regular season. He was acquired in a trade with the Washington Power in exchange for Tomas Fleischmann and two prospects.
"My leaving Washington was just a business decision," he said. "That happens in hockey 100 times a year. I think [Vancouver's] management made an excellent decision in trading for me so I can play alongside my brother. It's obviously paying off ten-fold."
The Vancouver Heroes will face the Buffalo Phantoms in the AFHL Stanley Cup Finals starting Monday night.
"The Heroes deserve to be in the Finals," said Hollywood GM/coach Mike Bassett. "And I think they can beat the Phantoms. They played a tremendous series against us. They scored right from the start of the series. It was one thing we didn't want to see because we knew they would generate lots of momentum, and this weekend we simply ran out of gas."
1st ROUND: Hollywood Stars (3) vs. Manhattan Supermen (6)
Stars move on to face Heroes; Offseason changes likely for Supermen
In the regular season, they scored far more goals and points than the Stars and were ranked third in the league in both categories. Still, the Manhattan Supermen are gone, eliminated in the first round of the AFHL playoffs by the Hollywood Stars.
Clearly, this is not acceptable to an organization that made several big moves at the trade deadline in an attempt to win the AFHL's first Stanley Cup. Changes are almost a certainty before the Supermen gather for training camp in September.
The Supermen can't blame it on injuries, because practically everyone was reportedly healthy except for Mikael Samuelsson. Leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos had injured his back last week, but played in the entire series against Hollywood and said he was fine.
The record, however, will show that Stamkos scored only one goal in the series. During the season, he led the Supermen with 43 goals and 40 assists for 83 points.
Stamkos didn't struggle alone.
Virtually all of Manhattan's top scorers had trouble. Patrik Elias, Bobby Ryan and Daniel Alfredsson combined for only three goals. Manhattan's blueline scored 37 goals in the regular season, but scored none in the playoffs. And Jamie Langenbrunner had 16 but none in the playoffs.
Of all the Supermen's talented and high-priced stars, only Milan Hejduk performed up to his ability with three playoff goals.
GM/coach Anthony Furino went to great lengths to put this team together and keep it that way. But the Manhattan roster has three of the eight oldest players in the league. Bill Guerin is 40, Steve Sullivan is 35, and Scott Niedermayer is 37.
Niedermayer knows changes are coming.
"Management will probably walk the fine line and replace some older guys with some young guys, and at some point the good young guys need to come in and produce for us. Whether they are ready now or we get them from somewhere else, that is a management decision."
The Stars outscored the Supermen 14-7 in the goals scored category, and 32-31 in the total points category.
Mike Ribeiro and Teemu Selanne set up each other for goals and the Stars, eliminated the Supermen 8-3 Sunday night in the first round of the AFHL playoffs.
The Stars grabbed an early lead after Supermen goalie Roberto Luongo was pulled after allowing 4 goals in the opening game. The Supermen came back to tie the matchup 5-5 heading into the weekend, but the Stars regained the lead for good, and it was all over for the Supermen.
"I can honestly say I've never been prouder," Hollywood's Jarome Iginla said. "We've been through a lot of adversity and we didn't make any excuses. Everybody wrote us off when we didn't make any moves at the trade deadline."
Halfway through the series, Stars defenseman Chris Pronger delivered a controversial bodycheck to Mark Streit which led to a fight between Ryan Smyth and Manhattan's Tuomo Ruutu. Shortly after that Pronger hit Bobby Ryan from behind which led to more scraps.
Emotionally chraged from the incidents, the Supermen scored a pair of goals to tie the matchup heading into a fight-filled weekend.
Stars' Martin St. Louis said it was the dirtiest series he's been a part of.
"Intensity brings that out, I guess. It's unfortunate, but it was pretty intense hockey, that's for sure," St. Louis said.
Hollywood's Martin Brodeur made 77 saves in the series, with several spectacular stops in the waning moments.
'He [Broduer] might have gotten overlooked a little bit, but I thought he was our MVP," defenseman Brian Rafalski said.
"I think as a whole we had a great season," Supermen GM/coach Anthony Furino said. "It's a tough way to end the year, but we did a lot of good things I guess that's the positive thing."
As the Supermen left the ice on Sunday, coach Furino was struck by a flying cup, causing a bruise on his left cheek.
"I've been hit harder before," he said. "I think it is disappointing, but they [the fans] are very emotional. One guy doesn't ruin it for the other 19,000 here."
1st ROUND: Vancouver Heroes (2) vs. Fort Drum Killers (7)
Heroes rebound after Miller gets pulled in first game; Killers eliminated after tiebreaker
The Heroes completed their dramatic comeback from a 7-3 first-round playoff deficit by beating the Killers on a tie-breaker in the final game of the matchup. They advanced to the second round of the AFHL playoffs, where they will meet the Hollywood Stars.
Heroes' goalie Ryan Miller was pulled early in the first game after giving up three goals on five shots. The Killers took advantage and maintained a lead heading into the weekend.
"When you're coming back from 7-3, it's tough, and you have to take it shift by shift," said Heroes' Eric Staal who finished the first round with 4 points. "We played very well as a team, and we believed that we could come back, and now we're here."
The game seemed destined to end on a complex play, because both teams played well. The stat categories were split right down the middle with both teams winning five stat categories each.
The matchup was tied 5-5 at the end of Sunday's games, so the teams went to overtime where a tie-breaker rule would determine the winner.
According to league rules, in the event that a playoff game ends in a tie, the deadlock is broken using the following system:
Both teams tied each other in their only regular season meeting so it was determined by playoff seed. The Heroes had the higher seed (2nd) to advance to the second round.
Fort Drum GM/coach Steven Stryska was upset about the tie-breaker rule but said he wasn't going to make a big deal out of it.
"I don't think you had to be at ice level to see that they left it all out there tonight," Stryska said. "One stat category makes a hell of a difference and we failed to win that extra one."
Heroes' right winger Jason Pominville contributed 4 goals to Vancouver's 20 goal output in the series. Eric Staal and Simon Gagne finished the series with 2 goals each.
"They've got a very physical lineup, and we paid the price to win, the important thing is that we move on to the next round," Simon Gagne said. "We're a little bit tired, but no injuries, so we're ready to take on the Hollywood Stars."
Some may blame Fort Drum's first round loss on Killers' superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who did not score a single point in the series. He was expected to carry Fort Drum on offense.
Kovalchuk was not available for comment after the loss.
"We threw everything at them," Killers' Mikko Koivu said. "We battled through injuries, with Brian Campbell and Steve Bernier out. We battled hard, but the end result is we gave up a lead, and we're very disappointed."
Stryska seconded Koivu's assessment about giving up a lead.
"We were so close to pulling off the upset. It's really disappointing but it was such a thrill to be a part of it," Stryska said. "I commend the Vancouver Heroes for a tremendous series. They battled right to the end."
1st ROUND: Buffalo Phantoms (1) vs. Deer Park Chiefs (8)
Phantoms complete shutout of Chiefs; advance to the second round
With the Buffalo Phantoms at the top of their game and having the first seed in the postseason, it was only a matter of time.
Riding stars Sidney Crosby and Loui Eriksson, red-hot Buffalo advanced to the second round and sent Deer Park packing with an 11-0 victory.
The Phantoms, who finished with the best record in the regular season, controlled the matchup from beginning to end. Their opponent for the second round will be the London Mustangs.
"It was a gritty series," Deer Park center Anze Kopitar said. "We dug a hole going down early. We tried but were against a great team."
Brendan Morrison scored the first goal for the Phantoms when he took a 2-on-1 feed from Eriksson and snapped a shot past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist from the right hashmark.
"Morrison's goal was a huge goal," Phantoms captain Sidney Crosby said. "That gave us momentum." Behind a home crowd of 18,007, Buffalo took the momentum into the weekend.
"When you look at the series, the difference was our penalty killing against their power play and our power play was very productive," Phantoms GM/coach Daryn Beckman said. "In the second half of the series, they threw everything at us. The Chiefs are a pretty aggressive team. They're not easy to play against and they take a lot out of you."
"The penalty killing was huge and when we made mistakes there, Anderson and Theodore came up big for us," said Eriksson who had 5 points in the matchup. "They made some saves that were outstanding. I was just really impressed by how cool and calm they both were. They saw the puck really well."
Lundqvist finished with 73 saves for the Chiefs, who won a race for the 8th spot in the final games of the regular season, when they finished with more points than Lexington and St. John's. But it was Brian Boucher who costed them the goaltending categories in this series. He was lit up for a 5.00 GAA.
"Power play, penalty kills, specialty teams. They dominated and we didn't," said Chiefs GM/coach Mike Nellany. "When your power play doesn't score, the guys on the ice for those are the ones that have to be accountable. We have to capitalize on those opportunities with the man advantage to get the momentum going the other way."
The Chiefs were done in by ill-advised penalties once again. They gave the Phantoms a lead early in the first game after two high-sticking penalties led to Buffalo power-play goals by Tim Connolly and Marian Hossa. The Phantoms finished the series with 11 powerplay points.
"We know what we did wrong again. They were smarter all series. They didn't retaliate like we did," Chiefs' Scott Hartnell said. "Even if you were hitting or slashing them, you didn't see any retaliation. We took way too many penalties and it hurt us again."
Buffalo scored the most points on offense out of all teams in the first round. They scored 18 goals and 32 assists for 50 points total.
"You're reaching for things at this point to say," Mike Nellany said. "We put it all on the table. There's nothing that we can say that can help us feel better. What can you say? We got beat by a better team."
1st ROUND: Oshawa City Leafs (4) vs. London Mustangs (5)
Mustangs head south of the border after beating Leafs
The Mustangs dashed the Leafs' hopes of an AFHL Stanley Cup with a 8-2 win in the first round of the AFHL playoffs.
There was no injustice in the result. The Mustangs came out with a perfect game plan, followed it to the letter and, over the course of the matchup, were by far the better team.
The goaltending trio of Jonas Hiller, Jaroslav Halak, and Pekka Rinne played absolutely stellar and Zach Parise played a magnificent series in both ends of the ice and should have been named first star.
And the rest of the Mustangs did what they do so well. They mucked, they hacked. They took the hits to make the play and, in the process, they clawed out a victory.
"This team has a lot of character," said Rick Nash, the prototypical Mustang. "Just to play with these guys is a treat.
"We slipped a little bit in the middle of the series but (the Leafs) didn't get where they did without being a good team. We really felt that we could beat this team and win the series. It took everybody, but we did it."
The general idea was to play a zone-to-zone game. Get it over one line, then worry about the next one, and so on.
Perhaps most importantly, the Mustangs -- who go on to face the Buffalo Phantoms in Round 2 -- made the Leafs pay a price every time they touched the puck. There were to be no freebies, and the Mustangs got that message across repeatedly.
In games like this, the visiting team comes in with the idea of weathering the mandatory first game opening storm and trying to go from there.
But at the end of that first night, the Mustangs had more than survived. They had taken an early lead. In fact, they took that lead before the game was three minutes old.
They were buzzing around behind the net when a shot hit the boards and caromed to Patrice Bergeron who shoved it in the general direction of the goal line. Leafs goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who had moved out of position on the original shot, came sliding back, only to have the puck deflect off his glove and into the net.
Nabokov didn't look particularly good on that goal, but he looked a lot worse on the next one -- a devastating goal to the Leafs.
David Perron stepped over the red line, took a stride and blasted a shot that, if left alone, would have sailed over the net. But Nabokov tried to grab it, fumbled it, and deflected it into the net.
A bad goal like that always has a debilitating effect on a team. So does a goal in the dying moments of an opening game.
"I felt really bad for the guy," Hiller said. "You don't know how hard it is to stop those shots when you have time to think about it. You have to get your body in front of it and he didn't, but I don't think that was the difference in the game."
Not everyone agreed. "Perron's goal got us pumped up and got us settled down at the same time," said Kyle Okposo who played a strong series. "It kept us going through the matchup. We got in a little trouble on Thursday night, but we worked out of it. We played really well in our own end all matchup long and I think that was the difference.
"The goaltending trio showed a lot of character. It was a ballsy performance."
At the end of the matchup, Hiller, Rinne, and Halak stopped 145 shots, posted 5 wins, a 1.48 GAA and gave the team the confidence it needed night in and night out.
By the time the playoffs wind down, it may be transpire that the Mustangs ended up playing a major role in deciding the Stanley Cup winner. There are four genuine contenders in the league -- the Mustangs knocked off one, while determining which two of the other three had to go head to head.
But that was far from their thoughts this past week. They had done what they came to do -- pull off a big first-round upset.
The AFHL Stanley Cup chase begins
You won't find any true bracket-busters in the first ever AFHL Stanley Cup playoffs.
There are 8 teams in the hunt for the silver chalice, and from top to bottom every club can make a case that it can skate off with the AFHL's biggest prize.
Going into the final week of the regular season, three teams were battling for the last playoff spot. Deer Park clinched that spot late Sunday night finishing the season with just a few more points than Lexington and St. John's.
"It's been quite a year" said Chiefs goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. "We feel now that finally we got in, we can start over here hopefully and try to do something."
They aren't alone.
The Oshawa City Leafs finished the season strong with only one loss in their last 11 matchups. They beat Edmonton in the final week of the regular season to put them a couple of points ahead of London Mustangs and Hollywood Stars atop the League Standings. They are going into the playoffs with the No. 3 seed.
"I think this is a very open year in the AFHL for a number of teams to win the Cup," Oshawa City Leafs coach Earl McNeill said. "The most important reason is because the rules aren't going to change in the post-season. It will be the same hockey, called by the same rules."
The Fort Drum Killers also fought much of the season just to qualify for the playoffs. The early free agent addition of right winger Chris Stewart after the Killers started slowly made all the difference. He's posted 55 points while playing on the Killers top line with Mikko Koivu and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Fort Drum is going into the playoffs with the 7th seed and will face the No. 2 Vancouver Heroes in the first round.
Other matchups in the playoffs incude No. 1 Buffalo and No. 8 Deer Park, along with No. 3 Hollywood versus No. 6 Manhattan. The remaining series is No. 5 London against No. 4 Oshawa City.
The Hollywood Stars are a story in themselves as they get set to face the Manhattan Supermen in the opening round.
Martin Brodeur has been everything Hollywood hoped he'd be when the club drafted him with their first round pick in the AFHL inaugural draft. Brodeur is among the league's best goaltenders with 37 wins, .913 SV%, 2.36 GAA, and 7 shutouts.
Goaltending is always key in the playoffs but more so this year with many clubs featuring the league's best: Ryan Miller (Heroes), Roberto Luongo (Supermen), Martin Brodeur (Stars), Jonas Hiller (Mustangs), Evgeni Nabokov (Leafs), Henrik Lundqvist (Chiefs), and Miikka Kiprusoff (Killers).
"Really every team going in thinks they have a shot," Buffalo captain Sidney Crosby said. "Whoever ends up to be in the Stanley Cup final, it really wouldn't surprise me."
The first place Buffalo Phantoms are putting their trust in Craig Anderson and Jose Theodore, who have been splitting the starting role in net all season long. They will face Deer Park and one of the best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, who helped the American Conference come from behind and win the All-Star Game this year against the Canadian Conference.
The Vancouver Heroes can scare any team. They enter as the hottest team in the league with the one goalie that clearly stands out above the rest. Ryan Miller is a league leader with a 2.16 GAA and .931 SV%.
"We know that the key to win championships... you've got to have good goaltending, and you've got to score points on offense, which we've been doing consistently these past few weeks" Heroes' Henrik Sedin said.
The London Mustangs emerged as legit contenders after they traded for Zach Parise a few weeks prior to the Trade Deadline. They've got a well-balanced offense and a solid goaltender in between the pipes. With Jonas Hiller in goal having himself a career year, the Mustangs could make a run at the Cup.
That is if they can oust Oshawa City in the first round.
"Whoever is the team that gets things going the quickest and playing together and plays the right way, is going to have success," Mustangs forward Rick Nash said. "I don't think it really matters what you did in the regular season."
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