Twas the season for death and taxes. And that other certainty -- Colorado hockey teams playing in the post season.
While scoring seats for the next round of Avalanche games tends to mean camping out in parking lots and winning ticket lotteries, there is another Colorado hockey team skating toward a second round of playoff victories -- the Colorado Gold Kings.
The Gold Kings defeated their old nemesis, the Anchorage Aces, in three games to one in the best-of-five series, beating the team that kept them from advancing further last season. While the quest for the Taylor Cup may not have quite the aura that Lord Stanley commands in the NHL, the West Coast Hockey League's championship series has featured some excellent play and a nail-biting sudden-death showdown that saw the Gold Kings' season swing in the balance.
Though the game drew a lean crowd of only 2,210 to the Colorado Springs World Arena (capacity 7,343), the happy fans made more noise than they looked capable of, thanks in part to a clapper giveaway, prompting a ceaseless explosion of team spirit and fanatic intensity that matched the tense battle being waged on the ice. Tell a man to clap, and you've fed the frenzy for the moment. Give him the clapper, and he'll never go hungry again.
Although the score was 1-0 for the better part of two periods, following a first period goal from Colorado captain Tom Perry, the Gold Kings dominated the ice for most of the game. Their sticks just looked bigger, consistently reaching the pucks the Aces couldn't get to. At times, the thin but comfortable cushion seemed to detract from their level of play, enticing them to set up an abundance of fancy passes rather than resorting to some good hard shots.
The Gold Kings actually looked better when they were a man down, stepping up their game and outshooting the Aces even while killing penalties. With an offense that kept the defensive pressure on, they made a rarity out of offensive Aces, making sure Anchorage goaltender Marc Delorme saw plenty of pucks.
The two WCHL teams meeting in the first round of the playoffs featured nary a single stateside player on either team -- unless you count the half dozen Alaskans playing for Anchorage. Though the average Springs resident wouldn't know a Gold King from Adam (Adam didn't wear pads), the die-hard fans turning out for the playoffs swung their fists in the air when the play devolved into fighting, and the heightened determination of the playoffs kept the crowd enthused. Stickless players made full body dives to block pucks as they flew across the ice, and scratched players leapt forward at the sign of conflict erupting, disdaining "boring hockey" and begging that "somebody fight somebody in the playoffs!"
The team did everything it could to generate fan enthusiasm, particularly among younger skaters. Scores of "Junior Gold Kings" took to the ice between the 2nd and 3rd periods, celebrating their own trophy-winning seasons in junior high school age groups. Players signed autographs between periods, and with plenty of elbow room and the chance to do-si-do while "Cotton-Eyed Joe" played over the P.A. to the sound of 2,300 clappers, a fine time was had by all.
- Scott Larrick
- Tom Perry strikes first, giving the Gold Kings the early lead
Briefly, the third period found the score reflecting the play, with the home team skating ahead 3-0. But with a padded lead, the level of play sunk a little. The Gold Kings have had consistent trouble all season closing games out in the third period, and Game 2 was no exception, with sloppy play and a let down in intensity leading to the Aces tying the game at 4-4 with less than a minute to play in regulation. Momentum took a sudden shift, and as 10 minutes ticked away in an overtime period promising sudden death, the crowd grew so quiet you could hear a clapper drop.
Late on a Thursday night, the fans stuck it through to the end, desperate to avoid sending the Gold Kings to two games on the road with an even split. The Gold Kings moved to a controlled offense with so much on the line, eager to let the end result speak to the level of play they've shown throughout the game. WCHL Rookie of the Year Todd Robinson tried to ease the puck into the net in slow motion, and Corey Lyons tried slapping it in from mid-rink.
Finally, with just over eight minutes left in the overtime, "Iceman" Greg Eisler slipped the puck into the net to assure the Gold Kings of victory, giving the hearty fans just cause for a much-anticipated celebration.
In Anchorage, the Gold Kings lost Game 3 Friday night, but came back to finish the series on Saturday with an 8-5 victory, led by Tom Perry's hatrick. Next up is the Tacoma Sabercats in the Northern Division Finals, and the Gold Kings have had more trouble with the Sabercats than any team in the league, posting a 3-8-1 record against them in regular season play. Look for another exhilarating competition as the series starts on the ice in Colorado Springs, giving local fans an intimate opportunity to go Cup Crazy.
Gold Kings vs. Sabercats
Games 1 and 2, Taylor Cup Semifinals
Colorado Springs World Arena
Fri., April 28, 7:05 p.m.
Sun, April 30, 6:05 p.m.
Call 579-9000 for tickets