Game Two of the AHL's West Division Finals between Iowa and Chicago Wolves seemed more like a track meet than a hockey game. Fortunately for the Stars, Chris Conner and Matt Niskanen brought their P.F. Flyers as they led Iowa to a 5-4 victory to even the series at one.
Conner and Niskanen each collected three points, while Paul Szczechura scored two goals, as the Stars overcame a shaky night on the penalty kill (4-for-8) and four-point outings from both 2007 AHL MVP Darren Haydar and NHL veteran Jason Krog.
photo courtesy of the Chicago Wolves
With Chicago trailing 5-4 and in full sprint mode throughout the third period, Iowa's penalty kill came through with two big kills, and Dan Ellis made some stellar saves to preserve the victory.
"It was an exciting game and it got pretty nerve-wracking at times with chances and odd-man rushes going back and forth," said Conner. "This is a big win for us and we feel like we have some momentum going home for the next three games. We have to keep pushing forward and doing some of the positive things we did tonight. Our biggest strengths are playing with energy and moving our feet, and I feel like we did a good job of that tonight."
Chicago's Mark Popovic netted a power play goal six minutes in, but Conner evened the game with a man-advantage goal of his own just four minutes later. The former Michigan Tech star bounced the puck into the net off the skate of a Wolves defenseman.
Conner's innate playmaking ability put Iowa ahead 2-1 three minutes later, as he set up another Stars power play goal. Skating in from the right corner, Conner's shot deflected off Garnett into the air, where Szczechura settled the puck down in the crease and tipped it in.
"We got off to a good start and we knew if we kept working and kept putting pucks at the net, good things would happen," said Conner. "We got a couple fortunate bounces, but we feel like we created those chances and were rewarded."
The Iowa lead wouldn't last long however, as Brett Sterling netted another Wolves man-advantage goal barely a minute later. The first intermission saw the game knotted at two, but the real track meet was only just beginning.
Early in the second, Niskanen made the play of his young professional career to put the Stars ahead 3-2. Playing shorthanded, the former Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog stripped Krog at center ice, won a foot race to the puck and buried a top-shelf goal over Michael Garnett.
"I stepped up on the defenseman, forced the turnover and I saw a lot of open ice in front of me, so I skated as hard as I could to get to it," said Niskanen. "We talked about being more aggressive and I thought that to myself when I saw the loose puck ahead of me. I was lucky enough to make a good play and it felt really good to see it go in."
After Krog evened the score at three with a power play goal, Marius Holtet took a Francis Wathier pass from behind the net and lifted the puck into the Wolves net for a 4-3 Iowa lead. Conner pushed the Stars ahead 5-3 when his beautiful centering pass to Szczechura found the back of the net, but Popovic pulled Chicago to within one with 30 seconds left in the middle frame.
Chicago had two power play opportunities in the third period, but the Stars held their ground. Conner made an excellent back-check play to snuff out a Chicago odd-man rush, and Iowa withstood a furious Wolves rally to reach the finish line as the victors.
|photo courtesy of the Chicago Wolves |
"That's what happens when we skate and move our feet," said Iowa Head Coach Dave Allison. "I thought we had a lot of emotion tonight. We're a young group that relies on hard work and we had a lot of guys put in a good effort.
"Conner was excellent tonight and it's good to see him finally rounding into shape after a lot of injury troubles. Niskanen had a beautiful shorthanded goal for us, where he kept his feet moving and just made an unbelievable play. It was nice to see Szczechura contribute tonight after sitting out Game One. All in all, I liked our effort tonight and this is a big win for us."
The West Division Finals series now shifts to Des Moines for Game Three on Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. Games Four and Five will also take place at Wells Fargo Arena on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.
Lineup Changes: After Wednesday night's 7-0 loss to the Chicago Wolves, Iowa Head Coach Dave Allison promised some changes, and he didn't hesitate to make them tonight. Junior Lessard jumped up to the club's top line, with Loui Eriksson and Joel Lundqvist, while captain Marty Wilford was paired on the blue line with rookie Matt Niskanen.
Defenseman Matt DeMarchiand forwards Vojtech Polak and Paul Szczechura each sat out Wednesday's Game One, but skated -- and contributed -- in tonight's contest. DeMarchi replaced Niklas Grossman, who missed tonight's game with a lower body injury. Iowa also scratched center Shane Endicott and left wing Janos Vas.
Krog Still Has Five-OT Flashbacks: Chicago center Jason Krog finished fifth in the AHL in assists (54) and seventh in points (80) this season -- both career highs -- despite spending two months in the NHL with Atlanta and the New York Rangers. He scored at least one point in 45 of his 48 games for Chicago this season, including a seven-point effort (hat trick and four assists) in November.
Krog was a member of the 2003 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and has vivid memories from that club's five-overtime victory in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals at American Airlines Center on March 24, 2003.
"I remember it seeming like it was never, ever going to end," said the native of Fernie, B.C., who won the 1999 Hobey Baker Award at New Hampshire. "There weren't many chances in the overtime periods, maybe one or two per period, and it just went on and on and on.
"You just tried to keep doing the little things right and stay on your game, no matter how long you've been out there. I remember just wanting to get a bite to eat and some dry laundry. It was a crazy night. Whenever I see a game on TV from Dallas, I still think about that night and how it felt like we might never stop playing."
Anaheim would win that contest 4-3 on Petr Sykora's goal after 140:48 minutes of overtime, en route to a six-game series win over Dallas. The Ducks reached the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to New Jersey in seven games.
|photo courtesy of the Chicago Wolves |
Sirott Back With 'Family': Judd Sirott spent 12 seasons as the play-by-play voice of the AHL Chicago Wolves before jumping to HDNet this season as that network's top announcer. He is serving as a guest contributor to the Wolves' broadcasts for the remainder of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
"The Wolves and the AHL are family to me," said the Chicago native, "and I&'m excited about the opportunity to be back at this level for the Wolves' playoff run. I had a phenomenal season working with HDNet, and calling NHL games was something I dreamed about since I was 13 years old. I was fortunate to work with legends like Larry Murphy and John Vanbiesbrouck, who both taught me so much, and I just had a blast."
Sirott called 56 games for HDNet this season, and despite "never having a home game," he enjoyed not having to bus between cities and call three games against three teams in three nights, like he often did at the AHL level. Sirott has immensely enjoyed the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but feels for the Dallas Stars after their tough loss in seven games to the Vancouver Canucks.
"Dallas had every right to feel they should have won that series, and I felt for them," said Sirott. "Marty Turco played an outstanding series and it was great for him to answer some of his critics. But one of Dallas' biggest problems all season was scoring goals, and offense was just hard to come by against Roberto Luongo and Vancouver.
"I think Dave Tippett did an outstanding job this season in juggling all those injuries to key players, and I'm glad he's coming back next season to hopefully take that team to greater heights. They should have a solid team again in 2007-08 and there are certainly a lot of prospects at this (AHL) level who can lend a hand, if need be."