The Round One Upset; The Round Two Challengeby Sean Gallagher | May 4, 2017, 11:08 PM ET
In a poll among general mangers before the playoffs started, the eighth seeded (and last confirmed to the party) Spartans weren't given much of a chance to knock off the top-seeded powerhouse Havana Revolucion. Of the 25 GMs asked, 22 picked Havana to advance. Rumors persist that even St. Louis GM Gallagher was not among the three who chose the underdog, but that's not a topic he is willing to discuss publicly.
Suffice to say, the Spartans managed to surprise the Rebels of the conference as well as most SICHL observers.
"I was on record saying that I hoped our players were in playoff mode, not 'yay, we made it' mode" said Gallagher, "Seems like they were ready."
The Spartans won game one in Cuba, shockingly, before dropping game two to the high-offense Rebs. Then, winning two straight at home, the Spartans found themselves in the catbird seat with a 3-1 series lead. Not to be easily disposed, Havana won game five and six, forcing a pivotal game seven back on the island.
In an epic elimination game, the teams traded goals for 60 minutes, lived through a heart-racing overtime and went to a second OT. Just four minutes into the fifth period of the seventh game, Jeff Skinner tipped home a Ryan Johansen shot to finally eliminate Havana and send the young upstarts through to the second round.
"I'm not sure if Skinny has touched the ground yet," said Johansen, "He went nuts after that goal. We all did. It was just the perfect deflection to beat Reimer. I won't forget that one soon."
While it's St. Louis that's moving on, the player stat sheets would indicate that Havana had the better series.
"Their top line guys were all plus-rated. They all have points. They all did their jobs," said Gallagher, "look at our go-to guys and we have some work to do. Guys who are being paid big bucks aren't at the top of the scoring numbers as we'd expect."
Looking at the Spartans stats, it does look a little like they just got back from the woodshed. Not only are many of their top nine forwards and top four defensemen lugging around minus ratings, but almost everyone is nursing minor injuries. Goaltender Frederik Andersen, who was among the league leaders early, got shelled late and looks as banged up as his stat line does - a .897 save percentage and a GAA just shade under 3.00.
Unfortunately for the battered and statistically abused Spartans, they will get no reprieve. After somehow outlasting the top seed in the conference, they now get to face the second seed in the conference, the deep, talented and experienced Philadelphia Fire Ants.
"Yes, yes, perfect," said Gallagher, "can't close out a great team for three games, get beat up and have your confidence shaken and then you get a nearly identical team to play for the next round. The joy of the eighth seed."
But all is not negative for the upstart Spartans. The seven game series gave many of their youngsters their first taste of SICHL playoff action and that much-needed experience that can never be quantified when looking at the post season. Goalies Andersen and Darcy Kuemper both saw their first ever psot-season action. As did Markus Granlund, Marko Dano, Brandon Pirri, Cody Ceci and Nino Niederreiter. The Spartans also iced several rookies who made significant impacts in Noah Hanifin, who had his first two playoff points before suffering an injury that will likely end his season, Jacob Slavin with two points and Max Domi, who led all rookies with six points in the seven games and who contributed two game-winning goals.
Beyond the youngsters, the most positive buzz is around two older players. First is defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who missed 20 games with an injury, only to return for game seven with a goal, an assist and the honor of being named the clinching game's first star. Second, league-leading scorer and deadline-acquisition Patrice Bergeron, he of the five goals, 11 points and impact on literally every game of the first series.
"The Fire Ants are already tweeting about him," said Gallagher of Bergeron, "so the pressure is on. If he can maintain this level of play, we could scare someone. If not, well...."
The Fire Ants, for their part, are likely not that scared. Despite having to win in seven games last round too, they seem healthier, wealthier and wiser. Opening at home, they'll likely come out firing and surely won't let up.
"We probably won't get any more GM votes in the Smartitude Cup this series than we did last time," said Gallagher, "but we probably won't get to sneak upo on anyone this time, either."