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Game 7 Stories: S33 Riga Reign & New York Americans


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Graphic Credit: @Zetterberg

 

Game 7 Stories: S33 Riga Reign & New York Americans

 

Welcome to the first installment of a new series called Game 7 Stories where we take a deeper look at the players involved in and the stories surrounding the many Game 7s that have occurred in the VHL’s Continental Cup Playoffs.

 

Make sure to check out other series VSN has to offer, such as our weekly reviews, podcasts, and scouting reports

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Introduction

 

Game 7.

As many sportscasters have mused over the years: Is there a more thrilling statement in all of sports? Not every league has best-of-seven playoff series which makes them that much more enjoyable and exciting. Almost every young athlete grows up dreaming of hitting a home run, throwing up a desperation three or blasting the puck into the net in a Game 7. They are not exactly rare but they are uncommon enough to never lose their reverence.  

 

As one might expect, with over 70 seasons in its vaunted history, the VHL has seen its share of Game 7s. The Continental Cup has been won after going the distance a total of 26 times with the latest instance occurring when the Toronto Legion defeated the high-octane Helsinki Titans in the S65 Finals. In fact, the current streak of eight consecutive seasons (S66-S73) without a Game 7 in the Cup Finals is the longest in league history. Will S74 bring us the next Game 7 Cup? We will see. But we won’t just look at the Finals as there have been many dramatic series where Game 7 has provided both elation and heartbreak with many a tale to tell.  Here is one such tale…

 

 

S33

 

The Season 33 Playoffs featured three Game 7s and ten future Hall of Famers with their skills on full display on route to a grudge match between the Riga Reign who had lost the S32 Continental Cup in seven games to the New York Americans. It would be the first time since S20-21 that two teams would meet in consecutive seasons in the Cup Finals when HC Davos Dynamo would beat the Toronto Legion in seven games in S20 only to have Toronto win the rematch the next year beating HC Davos in five games.  To make matters even more interesting, S32’s best goalie and league MVP, Alexander Labatte, left the Reign after losing the in Continental Cup Finals and went to the defending champion Americans where a collision course with fate awaited.

 

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Alexander Labatte

 

New York Americans

 

The Americans had the second-best record in the regular season leading the North American Conference with 53 wins and 113 points. Led by 116-point center Connor Evans, perennial All-Star Alexander Chershenko and arguably the best goalie (Alexander Labatte) and best defenseman (Ryan Sullivan) of the day, the defending champs were gunning for consecutive titles after winning the franchise’s second Cup the year before. They were without noted playoff hero Tukka Reikkinen though, who retired after ending a HOF career with a Daisuke Kanou Trophy in S31 in spite of losing in seven games to HC Davos and then scoring two goals in Game 7 in S32 including the Cup-winning goal.

 

After gaining a bye for the first round, the Americans faced off against the Calgary Wranglers (Ryan Sullivans former team), who dispatched of future HOF goalie Remy LeBeau and his Toronto Legion in six games. The Wranglers were led by the league’s leading goal scorer, 68-goal man Jarvis Baldwin, and the Americans former goalie, Skylar Rift, who won the S32 Cup with the Americans and had been traded for Sullivan.

 

The Americans would win the first game 2-1 and then Calgary would rattle off three straight wins including a 4-3 Game 4 overtime win on rookie Frank Zamora’s third goal of the series. New York were stunned but not hopeless. They had faced this situation before. As each game so far had only been a one-goal game, the Americans just needed some momentum and they gained that with a Game 5 overtime win in which a couple of late penalties hurt the Wranglers and Ryan Sullivan burned his old team with his first goal of the post season on the power play. Alexander Chershenko assisted on all four New York goals in the 4-3 win and some much needed life. The Americans then took Game 6 by a score of 4-1 helped by Guido Schwarz Esq.’s 3rd period hat trick to set up Game 7.

 

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Guido Schwarz Esq. celebrating his Game 6 hat trick.

 

With New York up 2-1 after two periods, Calgary’s Volodymyr Rybak tied it up on the power play at 9:50 in the 3rd. The Americans outshot the Wranglers 10-5 after that goal but both goalies stood their ground and the game would go to overtime for the third time in the series. Again, Ryan Sullivan would burn his old team. After Sullivan crunched a streaking Chico Salmon who was entering the American zone, Sullivan’s defense partner Austin Gow retrieved the puck and passed it back to Sullivan who was racing through the neutral zone. Sullivan crossed the Calgary blue line and then the Americans’ top line put on a passing clinic. They cycled around the confused Wranglers passing the puck fifteen times before Nikolai Chershenko finally roofed the puck over Rift’s left shoulder to give the Americans the series victory and a date once again with the Reign in the Cup Finals. Labatte had his best game of the series stopping 42 of 44 shots.

 

 

Riga Reign

 

After Labatte left for the bluer ice of New York, Riga handed the reigns to the aptly named netminder, Jehovah. The Reign were hoping he and S32 defenseman of the year, Elijah Incognito, could lead them to the promised land. Riga had a strong season and was 2nd in the European Conference with 42 wins and 89 points behind the historic season of the Helsinki Titans who at the time set a league record with 127 points and a second-best ever 61 wins.

 

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Riga's Jehovah vs. Davos' Satan

 

Riga’s route back to the Continental Cup Finals began with a date with HC Davos Dynamo and a goaltending match-up for the ages: Jehovah (Riga) vs. Satan (Davos). In spite of 45 saves from Jehovah in Game 1, Davos’ future HOFer Phil Rafter scored early in overtime to give his team a 1-0 edge. Riga won Game 2 but the lost Games 3 and 4 and were looking at the end of a 3-1 barrel again. Their leaders wouldn’t give up though, and continued to play their game and expected results. Game 5 saw them win 4-1 on the strength of Incognito’s three special teams assists. Then the future HOF defenseman put on a show in Game 6, scoring his second goal and fourth point of the game in double overtime on Riga’s 63rd shot to tie the series.

 

Riga and Davos traded goals twice through the first two periods of Game 7 and then future HOFer David Smalling gave Davos the 3-2 lead early in the third. Less than five minutes later, Riga’s Polish pivot, Michal Wozniak, scored at 7:00 to tie it. Wozniak would score again on the power play with 2:20 left to play and Jehovah would stop the next three Davos shots including a couple of in-tight chances by David Smalling in the dying seconds to complete the comeback.

 

Next up were the Helsinki Titans, the best team ever in league history. The Titans were backed by four 100-point scorers including future HOF center Ethan Osborne and future HOF goalie Tuomas Tukio. In a familiar narrative, Riga fell into a 3-1 deficit at the Titan’s hands including a Game 2 loss in overtime that featured a brouhaha early into overtime after a squeaky clean 3rd period. Once again, the Reign were clinging to life and they flipped the overtime script in Game 5 as an unusual suspect stepped up. 10-goal man Felix Leiter got just enough on the one-timer from an Incognito cross-ice pass to beat a sprawling Tukio and give the Reign one more day and take the air out of Helsinki’s sails. After that goal, Tukio looked ordinary as he allowed nine goals in 49 shots over the next two games as Riga would win them 5-4 and 4-2. Who else but Elijah Incognito would score the eventual series winner in Game 7 with his seventh goal of the playoffs and sent the Reign back to the Finals to meet the Americans.

 

 

The Finals

 

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Riga's Elijah Incognito and New York's Nikolai Chershenko

 

This was the time these two teams had been waiting for. The Americans were looking to cement a dynasty with their second straight Cup in three consecutive Finals appearances in which they had lost and then won a Game 7 in the previous two Finals. For Alexander Labatte, it was a chance for redemption and for a second Continental Cup. For Riga, it was the thought of revenge and retribution that fueled them through two seven-game series thus far.

 

Game 1 – NYA 2-1: The Chershenkos would star as both Alexander and Nikolai had a goal and an assist with Nikolai’s marker in the 3rd period being the game-winner. Labatte would turn in a vintage performance stopping 29 of 30 shots. Michal Wozniak would score his league-leading 10th playoff goal in the losing cause. While Alexander had only scored one goal in the series against the Wranglers, he turned it on in the Finals.

 

Game 2 – RIG 5-2: Tensions were high right off the puck drop especially after Elijah Incognito set up Wozniak’s 11th goal of the playoffs only a 1:33 into the first. Then Wozniak won the ensuing face-off from Alexander Chershenko which set him off and he started chirping at Incognito in less than thirty seconds, the two future HOFers dropped the mitts and went at it. The Ukrainian forward had a distinct height advantage over the Reign defenseman and won the tilt but Riga won the momentum. Incognito would score the next goal on the power play later in the period and Riga would add one more before the close of the period for a 3-0 lead outshooting the Americans 14-6. Early in the second, Wozniak would score his second of the game and fourth point of the night and New York never recovered. They scored a couple midway thought the second frame to make it closer but Josef Heiss Jr. scored a power play marker in the third to put it away.

 

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Michal Wozniak battling in front of Labatte.

 

Game 3 – NYA 3-1: Great teams rebound after bad games and that’s exactly what New York did after Game 2’s clunker. Alexander Chershenko went into beast mode and potted all three of his team’s goals doubling his goal output in the playoffs. Labatte stopped 32 of 33 shots to put the Americans two wins away from the Cup.

 

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New York's Alexander Chershenko shooting on Jehovah with Al Wilson in pursuit.

 

Game 4 – RIG 4-0: Great teams rebound after bad games and that’s exactly what Riga did after Game 3’s clunker. Oh, we already went there, didn’t we? Well, Riga was a great team too and they rebounded as well. And while Jehovah had been playing well enough, they needed him to steal a game and so he did. The VHL’s leader with 10 shutouts during the regular season, Jehovah stopped all 25 American shots for the only shutout posted the entire playoffs. Riga’s stars were their best players again as Josef Heiss Jr. scored two third period goals to seal the deal and Michal Wozniak and Elijah Incognito had two points each.

 

Game 5 – RIG 5-4: Neither goalie played well in Game 5 but Riga outshot New York by a 44-21 margin and they scored the most goals. The Reign jumped out to a 5-2 lead after two periods by throwing 35 shots Labatte’s way and getting two goals from Miles Larsson and others by Incognito, Wozniak, and Heiss Jr. Conversely, the Americans only mustered 10 on Jehovah who let in two. The Chershenkos made it interesting in the third period as both Nikolai and Alexander scored midway in the frame but in spite of pulling Labatte for the extra attacker, the Reign swarmed the Americans who barely even made it into Riga’s zone let alone get a shot. Riga was now in control of the series.

 

Game 6 – RIG 3-2 OT: During a scoreless first period, where both goalies were sharp with Labatte stopping 13 shots and Jehovah stopping six, tempers flared again near the end of the period and three players on each team were assessed fighting majors. What a way to start! Although Riga got on the board by a goal from Al Wilson 44 seconds into the second period, Alexander Chershenko responded 18 seconds later to tie it up with his seventh goal of the Finals. Then Austin Gow scored on the power play at 14:22 to take the lead 2-1. In the third period, unheralded Felix Leiter gave Riga the equalizer with his third goal of the playoffs. That was the only goal in the final frame that saw Riga again outshoot New York 16-14. They were headed to overtime – the fourth overtime game in the playoffs for the Americans and the fifth for the Reign. Both goalies were playing brilliantly but it was all Riga in the extra frame. They had eight shots on Labatte while the Americans didn’t even get one on Jehovah. At 5:07 after Thomas Corcoran won a face-off against Alexander Chershenko in the Americans’ zone and scooped the puck to Miles Larsson, Larsson passed it to a waiting Josef Heiss Jr. who ripped the puck past Labatte for his fifth of the series and fourth in three games to queue the celebration and complete Riga’s route to revenge through two Game 7s and five overtime games to claim the franchise’s third Continental Cup and first Cup since S16. Defenseman Elijah Incognito would win the Daisuke Kanou Trophy as he was an anchor for the Reign the entire playoffs and led the league in assists and points and was second in goals in one of the finest playoff performances the VHL has ever seen. Ironically, the two rivals would meet again in back-to-back finals in S40-41.

 

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The Riga Reign win the S33 Continental Cup

 

I hope you enjoyed the first installment in the Game 7 Stories series. Thanks for reading!

 

Player Mentions: @Green @STZ @Higgins @CoachReilly @Victor @Knight @sterling @Advantage @Phil @Strummer @sherifflobo @Mike @philthethrill81 @Hybrid1486 @Corco  @frescoelmo @xDParK @Bushito 

Let me know if I'm missing anyone!

Edited by animal74
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I remember being so disappointed after S32 and thinking that was definitely our year.  Our start to the season was like 20 wins in a row.  The team was heavy on defense and relying on that with Sterling (Labatte) to not let in a lot of goals.  Not being able to score lost us the S32 season.  In a fit of unorthodox anger and rage of not winning after many seasons I did the unthinkable.  I traded possibly the league's best goalie away.  It ended up being to the team we just lost to and ended up beating.  The hope was to stack the rest of our team.  Our 400 TPE goalie had bumps and it was a crazy season.  You can see in the recaps we out shot teams since our overall roster was better.  I just hoped we could score more than we let up in the end.  

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