The SkyCity Stampede put one hand firmly on the Birgel Trophy as they got across the line in an exciting and closely contested opener of the NZIHL Finals Series at Paradice Avondale in Auckland on Saturday. The southerners took the decision 5-3, sealing it with an empty netter, and will look to put the other hand on the Trophy, lifting it for the third straight season if they win either Game 2 or Game 3 at home in Queenstown next weekend.
In the end, the experience and patience of the Stampede turned out to be the difference in a hard fought game in which both teams would lament some missed opportunities, and both Goalies had outstanding games to keep it close.
Both sides possess huge offensive threats, but it was defense that dominated the early exchanges with the Admirals settling well and showing no signs of nerves for their first Finals appearance in seven years.
The first period ended at 0-0, despite some class moves from the teams who have provided some of the best NZIHL hockey to date. With 6 minutes left in the first stanza, a tic-tac-toe Admirals play from Spiller to Andersen to Toth gave Toth a golden opportunity, only to be thwarted by a miracle Brookes save. It would become a common theme as Brookes had answers to almost every question the West Aucklanders asked.
Then as the period was closing, Mitchell Frear found himself open just below the hashmarks, with only Kercso-Magos to beat and the puck on his stick, but it was the Hungarian’s turn to say no and leave the period scoreless.
The Stampede’s trademark heavy forecheck had been operating efficiently, and the Admirals had struggled at times to move the puck out of their D-zone. When they did, they were threatening and caused problems for the Stampede D corps. With each side blocking shots and putting bodies on the line, scoring chances were rare.
The second period (mostly) belonged to the Admiral’s as they created some gilt edged chances. 12 minutes in, regular season leading scorer Toth looked to have a clear shot, faked and moved the puck across to Battani, but Brookes was again equal to the task. Three minutes later however, Toth was on the red line with no apparent angle, but quickly shot across and into the pads and with Brookes not quite set, the puck trickled into the net to let a near capacity crowd erupt as the Admirals took the first lead of the game.
Two shifts later and Dale Harrop timed his curl perfectly to be in front of the net just as the puck was fed from behind the net, but it jumped his stick as he was about to shoot. And this is where the experience and calm heads took over for the Stampede. A poor Admirals change let a stretch pass hit Schneider as he left the Stampede bench, and he was in alone on goal. Admirals captain Nick Craig was forced into a hooking penalty as Schneider was shooting, and the officials rightly called a Penalty Shot. Schneider converted, showing sweet hands as he froze Kercso-Magos and went high glove to tie it up.
With less than 30 seconds left, the Admirals were perhaps guilty of lamenting a lost lead and thinking about going into the break at 1-1. But the Stampede had other ideas, and played to the last seconds of the period. With time expiring, McIntosh took the puck just inside the Admirals zone and then threaded a miracle sauce between two D’s to find the flying Finn Tomi Martikainen, who roofed his shot putting the yellow team into the break ahead 2-1, when 30 seconds earlier they were down by a goal.
The Admirals came out firing in the third but the Stampede knew what to expect and their patient, intelligent, lock-down hockey mode was fully engaged. Schneider had a golden chance 3 minutes in when Mulder cleverly opened space for him, but he was denied. Then with 5 minutes gone, a delayed penalty was called on Admiral Henric Andersen, and as Brookes skated for their bench, the Stampede released the deadly Schneider as their 6th attacker. He took a Hayden Argyle feed from behind the net, went skate to stick and then lifted a superb backhand to give the yellow team some breathing room and a 3-1 lead.
Despite frenzied Admirals pressure, it would be the Stampede who would further extend with 5 minutes left, as Connor Harrison was allowed to walk out of the corner unchallenged with the puck and fire it past a stranded Kercso-Magos for 4-1. The game looked over.
But the Admirals showed great character to find a way back into the contest and send a message for the next games. A powerplay with 3 minutes left eventually enabled Frazer Ellis to slip a smart shot through and with traffic in front of Brookes, he pulled his team back to 2-4. And with just 50 seconds left, T.J. Battani got just reward for his endeavours on the night, as he fed a miracle pass from the corner through the seam and across a crowded Stampede crease to find an unchallenged Ellis on the back door, and he converted with glee to leave a nervous last few seconds for the visitors.
After the face off, and with the Admirals possibly a little too eager to pull Kercso-Magos for an extra attacker, they didn’t gain clear possession as he exited the ice and the Stampede again showed all that experience as Kyle Mulder calmly took their second empty net chance to make it 5-3 and end the contest.
It was a fitting first game in the Finals Series, with almost identical shots-on-goal for each team (Admirals 36, Stampede 35) and whilst the Stampede were deserving victors, they will be aware their threepeat holy grail is still incomplete and the Admirals will head south determined to take it to a Game 3 decider.
The fixture was a physical event, played hard but fair by both teams, and pleasingly neither team suffered injuries or suspensions to impact the next games.
Game 2 is Friday 25 August at 7.00pm, and Game 3 will be Saturday 26th at the same time, if required.
Game report by Tim Ratcliffe
Photo credit Sandrina Huish