For two periods of the opening game in the 2018 NZIHL Finals, the defending champion Skycity Stampede looked like the dominant force they have been for most of the season – playing with the lead and looking to be in control.
But playing in front of the largest and most vocal home crowd the West Auckland Admirals have enjoyed this year, the challengers continued to chip away at the Stampede’s lead until finally reaching that crucial turning point in the third period when Andy Hart slotted the game-tying goal halfway through the final spell.
Hart proved to be the key factor in helping the Admirals take the first game in overtime according to captain Justin Daigle as he recounted what happened on the game-winning goal, “He wore his heart on his sleeve on that one, took a tonne of abuse down low, just stayed with it, held onto the puck and made an unbelievable pass out front to Kevin (Phillips), and Kev put it up top just like he should.”
While the Admirals managed to take game one in dramatic fashion, their biggest mission still remains at large: winning a game in Queenstown.
The last time the Stampede hosted the Admirals was back in round 7, winning 7-0 and 3-1. A losing record there weighs on the mind of West Auckland defender A.J. Spiller coming into game two, “I’ve been here three years and we haven’t won in Queenstown yet, so we’ll try to tick that one off too while we’re at it.”
It’s been said all year, the Queenstown Ice Arena is a fortress for the Stampede – some may get sick of hearing that, but it’s true. The only side to beat them at home this season has been the Dunedin Thunder, and that too took some late-game heroics to knock over the giants. Not only does the visiting side have to contend with a skilled side that is comfortable playing the physical game, but they also need to find a way to shut out their passionate fanbase – whom will no doubt be in full voice this Friday after selling out game 2 in quick fashion.
Speaking with Puck Yeah after game one, it was clear that this loss hurt Stampede captain Matt Schneider when the goal of securing a special place in NZIHL history with four consecutive titles means a lot to his side.
“We worked real hard all season to get that home ice advantage, to get that top spot, because we know we’re going to need it. It’s going to be a huge push from us with the crowd and everything, I know they’re going to be excited. I think we sold out in about twelve minutes down there, so they’re going to be amped up and we’re going to be amped up – this series is not over,” Schneider stated emphatically.
Stampede forward, and newly selected Ice Black, Ryan Strayer shared the sentiments of his captain about the importance of playing at home. “Best fans in the league, we love the intensity in our barn, we just gotta get the boys going this time,” said Strayer.
On top of riding the high of the home crowd’s energy, Strayer believes turning in a full sixty minute performance of ‘Stampede hockey’ will be crucial to securing the much-needed wins in the best-of-three series for what is now ‘do-or-die’ for the current champions.
Schneider wants to see more from his team and maintains his belief that the Stampede remain within grasp of reaching new historic heights. “I think we’re a little disappointed in our play in the third – if we could just clean that up a bit, we don’t need to make any big sweeping changes but just stick to our game and I think we’ll be all right,” Schneider said reassuringly.
But meeting the West Auckland Admirals for the second year running at the business end of the season see the two sides building a competitive rivalry. Schneider was complimentary of the way the Admirals played to claw back the Stampede’s lead, which by the game’s halfway point was 3-1. Those thoughts were echoed by his West Auckland counterpart as he reflected on how his team has dealt with injuries to get to this point.
“I think it’s just a belief and confidence in what we’ve done all year as far as our preparation and the effort we put into practice. We did a good job scouting I think, so we knew what type of systems we were going to match up against their highly skilled offence. The game plan was shut down their top line and just try to get some secondary scoring – I’m just really proud of the boys for never losing faith and just continuing to work hard, and eventually it came right,” said Daigle.
Prior to this victory, the Admirals have never won a NZIHL Finals game in the team’s history. Previously they have been swept by the Stampede 2-1 and 6-3 in the inaugural 2005 season, along with 5-2 and 5-2 loses last year. They also went down to the Botany Swarm 3-1 in the 2010 Final.
They can tick one thing off the bucket list, but the most important win still remains.
Watch the recap video for highlights from game 1 of the 2018 Birgel Cup Finals:
If the Skycity Stampede win game 2, tickets for game 3 will go on sale following Friday’s conclusion – stay tuned to the team’s Facebook page for details.
Photos: Wayne Curtis