LOVELAND, Colo.--The Colorado Eagles will be playing for the ECHL's Kelly Cup.
Colorado wrapped up the Western Conference Finals in five games on Saturday night at the Budweiser Events Center by scoring five unanswered goals in a 6-3 victory over the Toledo Walleye. The Eagles won four-straight games to win the best-of-seven series 4-1.
"Our team is good enough that if someone is not going, someone else is going," said Colorado Avalanche prospect Mason Geertsen. "That is the biggest thing of all. You shut down one line, and another line is going to score, so it is tough to play against us."
While the west finals were decided in five games, it didn't come easy for Colorado. The Eagles and Walleye were separated by only one goal for much of the series, and other than the first game, which featured an empty-net marker by Toledo, each of the previous three contests were decided by one score--two coming in overtime.
It appeared as if the fifth was heading that way as well with the clubs knotted at 3-3 heading into the final 20 minutes of regulation on Saturday night, but the Eagles bucked the trend as two Avalanche prospects contributed on two goals in the first five minutes of the third period.
Forward Julien Nantel scored 1:29 into the stanza to give Colorado its first lead of the night, and defenseman Sergei Boikov had the primary assist on Cam Maclise's redirection tally in front that extended the lead to two at 4:05.
"We never give up," Boikov said. "Even [Friday] night (in triple overtime), we knew it was going to be hard because they were fighting for their lives. We just keep going, and it's worked for us."
Nantel's seventh goal of the playoffs was a far wrist shot from the slot. It stood as his third game-winning marker of the postseason and second in the Conference Finals. He also scored in overtime in Game 3 on Wednesday night.
"I didn't see it perfectly, but I think it touched the defenseman in front of me and went into the corner (of the net)," Nantel said. "It was a good shot. The energy was there (with the team) after that goal. It was a good way to start the third period."
Video: Julien Nantel on the Eagles going to the ECHL Finals
Boikov's assist on Maclise's second goal of the night was his eighth point of the playoffs. The Russian defenseman fired a slap shot from the point, and Maclise deflected the puck just enough to have it get past goaltender Jake Paterson and dribble across the goal line.
"We all wanted to win," Boikov said. "We knew the other team was going to get tired. We just tried to do our best and not save our energy for anything."
Down 3-1 early in the second period, the Eagles cut away at the Walleye's lead with ECHL scoring leader Alex Belzile starting the run. He redirected Jake Marto's pass in front on the power play at 10:47 to cut the deficit to one.
Belzile, who played 29 games with the San Antonio Rampage during the season, has 14 goals and 24 points during the postseason and finished the five-game series against Toledo with four tallies and three helpers.
The Eagles gained some energy from the crowd 47 seconds before Belzile's marker as Geertsen fought Toledo's Matt Caito. It just so happened that at the same time, the Walleye's Evan Rankin was called for a tripping penalty, leading to the Colorado man advantage and eventually Belzile's tally.
"I think the fight honestly just calmed things down," Geertsen noted. "There was a lot of slashing and hacking, and there was no accountability for it. Once that happened, then everybody kind of settled down and we went back to our game."
Video: Mason Geertsen on the Eagles winning the ECHL West
Maclise tied the outing 3-3 with 3:51 left in the middle frame as he fired a blistering slap shot from the right circle for his first of the night, completing Colorado's two-goal comeback.
Geertsen noted that the club was not worried about the deficit and believed it could rally despite the first four contests of the series being so tightly contested.
"This team stays so composed. I've never seen it before," Geertsen said. "Everybody is just even-keeled and no one is nervous. Everyone knows we're going to score."
Eagles forward Shawn St-Amant scored an empty-net goal with 44.2 seconds left to finish the five-goal run. St-Amant split the regular season with 35 outings in Loveland and 28 in San Antonio with the Avs' AHL affiliate.
Facing elimination, Toledo had the start it wanted as Tyson Spink scored on the team's first shot of the outing 6:16 into the first period. Casey Pierro-Zabotel tied it for Colorado less than six minutes later, but Beau Schmitz regained the lead for the Walleye with 3:23 left in the frame.
Toledo took a two-goal advantage on Dane Walters' tally at 8:01 of the second stanza in what would be the final marker of the season for the club.
The Eagles dominated possession throughout their home portion of the series, and Saturday was no different. Colorado outshot Toledo 37-25, including a 21-20 mark in the third period--though most of Toledo's shots came after the Eagles went up 5-3.
"I think one of our strengths is we have good game management," Nantel said. "We're not having a lot of turnovers. We're using our speed to get the puck. Our defense is really good to get the puck to the forwards, and our forwards are playing good."
Eagles goalie Kent Simpson picked up the win after making 22 saves.
Video: Sergei Boikov on the Eagles winning the ECHL West
Colorado will have home-ice advantage for the Kelly Cup Finals against either the Manchester Monarchs or South Carolina Stingrays. Game 1 is scheduled for Friday at 7:05 p.m. MT at Budweiser Events Center.
No matter who the Eagles play in the league finals, they seem to be playing their best hockey at the right time. They defeated the two-time defending Kelly Cup-champion Allen Americans in six games in the second round and have now topped this year's regular-season champs in five contests.
"The confidence is there right now," said Nantel. "The guys are proud to be here and thrilled to go to the finals. I think it is going to be a good matchup. We don't know against who, but we'll prepare and have a good week in front of us to rest and prepare ourselves."
Earlier on Saturday, South Carolina--Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar's former club--defeated the Monarchs 3-1 to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Game 6 is Monday night in Manchester, New Hampshire.