MELBOURNE, Australia - Robert Malloy, the Connecticut-born Australian national team defenceman, became king of the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) when he captained the Newcastle North Stars to its sixth league title on Sunday.
It was back-to-back titles for North Stars when the Canberra based CBR Brave was beaten 2-1 in a closely-fought final.
The Australian league was started in 2000 and North Stars won its first title in 2003. It has been the dominant team in the league and has won titles in 2005-06, 2008 and 2015. It also finished runner-up on six occasions.
Malloy, 29, who arrived in Australia six years ago, grew up in Cheshire in the United States and has always been passionate about ice hockey.
The strong defender has gained citizenship and represented Australia internationally the last two years.
He set a new record for himself when he became the first player to captain two different clubs to win the Goodall Cup.
Molloy captained the Sydney Ice Dogs to the title in 2013 and North Stars this year. It was his third title.
This was the first time since 2007 that the third (North Stars) and fourth (CBR Brave) ranked teams at the end of the regular season have played in the final of the Goodall Cup. The Sydney Bears beat the North Stars 3-2 in 2007.
“I thought it was a much harder league this year and far more competitive,” Newcastle North Stars coach Andrew Petrie said. “Last year people expected us to win. This year no-one did and that makes it sweeter.”
Connor McLaughlin, the leading points scorer in this year’s league, opened the scoring in the final with his 36th goal of the league season. He has 27 assists for a score of 63 points.
He was in control of the puck down the centre from the blue line and eased past two defenders and his one handed wrist shot sped past the goalie with 1min 58sec left in the period.
The North Stars led 1-0 after the first period. They added another goal in the second period when Josh Harris blasted in a goal from just inside the blue line after the North Stars grabbed hold of the puck after a weak clearing hit from in front of the goal. He was given an accurate assist pass from Beau Taylor.
Brave forward Geordie Wudrick, who was in the North Stars’ winning team last year, scored his third goal of the finals series when he blasted in a shot from 15 metres in the third period after assists from Jan Safar and Stephen Blunden from the left flank.
He almost took the game and Brave into overtime when he slammed another shot at the goal in the final minutes. It was brilliantly stopped by North Star goalie Dayne Davis.
Both goalies had a rock like defence. Davis made 28 saves and let in one goal and Aleksi Toivonen, a Australian-Finnish goalie born in Canberra, kept the Brave in the hunt by stopping 29 shots and letting in only two goals.
This was the third year in a row that the CBR Brave had qualified for the semi-finals. They took a step up this year by reaching the finals.
It was an ironic twist to play the Newcastle North Stars in the final because they lost the semi-final to them last year.
The signing of Geordie Wudrick, who won the title with North Stars last year, boosted the morale of the Canberra-based team.
He demonstrated his skills by scoring two goals in the semi-final against Melbourne Ice. He has impressed Brave coach Artem Bidlevskii.
“He’s a savage,’’ Bidlevskii said. “The Australian league knows him, everybody knows what he can do in these situations. This is where he steps up and plays his best hockey.”
Wudrick lifted up his league scoring ranking to second by scoring three goals and making one assist at the weekend to end the league season with a score of 54.
The other attackers in the CBR Brave team were Mathieu Guertin, who was ranked in the league’s top eight with 49 points (18 goals and 31 assists), and Casey Kubara with 50 points (16 goals and 31 assists).
Kubara’s 49 regular season points was a record for a rookie in the Australian league.
CBR Brave alternate captain Kai Miettinen described what it was like getting to the three finals weekends.
“The first year was like a fairy tale so just getting to the finals was good enough,” he said. “We expected to make it again last year. It was heart breaking losing the semi-final, especially after leading.
“There was a lot of motivation fuelling us this year.”
Both semi-finals were tight and went into overtime to find a winner. It was knife edge hockey and fans were sitting on the edge of their seats.
The defences of all four teams was tight and it was difficult to break through to the goal.
This was particularly the case in the first semi-final when CBR Brave only had 34 shots that reached Melbourne Ice goalie Troy Davenport who saved 30.
Shots at goal by Melbourne Ice reached the CBR Brave goal 35 times and goalie Aleksi Toivonen saved 32.
The first semi-final provided the biggest upset with favourite Melbourne Ice beaten 4-3 by CBR Brave when Jan Safar slammed a high shot over goalie Troy Davenport’s glove.
Safar had spent an anxious two minutes in the penalty box for slashing and he was keen to make amends when he jumped back on to the ice.
He found himself on a rare breakout with only the goalie to beat after a perfect pass by Geordie Wudrick, who was one of the stars in the exciting day for the Canberra,based team.
He scored two goals himself but it was that final pass to Safar that was his best act of the game.
Safar will have fond memories because he scored the first and last goals. His early goal in the first period boosted the Brave’s confidence and made the team believe that they could beat the regular-season table topping Melbourne Ice.
He made good use of a two on one advantage and slammed the puck into the net after the Ice had badly mishandled the puck on the blue line.
Joseph Hughes gave the Ice a 2-1 lead with just under four minutes left in the second period. But with two men in the penalty box in the last two minutes Wudrick seized his chance and made use of the two player advantage to even the scores with just 13 seconds left in the period.
The scores were even at the end of regular time with both teams scoring a goal in each period.
But the Ice had a few anxious moments before Lassen slammed the puck into the net with just 85 seconds left in the third period to take the game into overtime.
Melbourne Ice Head coach Brent Laver was philosophic, but naturally disappointed by the result.
“That’s the cut-throat nature of the league,” he said. “You give everything and it comes down to one weekend and an overtime game.”
The Australian Ice Hockey League started in 2000 and the Ice has won the Goodall Cup three times. They have made the finals in the last 11 years and finished runner-up in the last two years.
The Ice had its best regular season this year and scored a record 66 points. This beat their own record of 65 points that they reached in 2006 and 2011.
Melbourne Ice reached the top of the table in week three this year and stayed there for the rest of the 28 rounds. They were nine championship points ahead of second placed Perth Thunder at the end.
Laver knew it would be tough in the semi-final.
“It was like a pressure corker and was going to be the first one to pop that pressure valve that will be the winner,” he said.
Jason Baclig with 49 points was the only Melbourne Ice player to reach the top eight on the Australian league honours board. He scored 24 goals and made 25 assists.
Former Danish national team player Lasse Lassen was the Ice’s top goal scorer. He had 27 successful shots in the regular season and added two more in the semi-final to end the season on 29.
Defending champions Newcastle North Stars won the other semi-final when Hamish Powell scored the golden goal after 9:59. The assist was made by Brandon Greenside.
Thunder goalie Thomas Heemskerk was distracted and looking in another direction when the puck sped past him.
Andrew Cox scored the opening goal for Thunder midway through the first period after North Star goalie Dayne Davis blocked a slap shot by Michael Dorr and Cox knocked the puck out of the goalie’s glove.
Six minutes later Scott Swiston scored the first of his two goals to even the score.
The Thunder finished second in the regular season and came into the finals weekend with a positive feeling after losing just one of their last eight games.
Thunder head coach David Kenway was naturally disappointed by the result.
“It was a tough game and both teams were evenly matched,” he said. “I knew it was going to come down to a little lapse. We had that lapse and they capitalised on it.”
Heemskerk, a Canadian import, was the best player in the Thunder squad and had a high save percentage of 92.7 in the regular season and gave confidence to the team.
It was an Australian league record for a starting goalie who had played more than 15 games
Import forwards Ben Breault and Michael Dorr finished third equal on the league table with 53 points. Jessyko Bernard scored 24 goals in his 26 regular season games.
Thunder started the season in style but suffered a mid-season slump in June and July that coincided with an injury to captain Sam Wilson, who returned for the semi-final.
They came back strongly over the last nine weeks and made their second successive semi-final. They were beaten by Melbourne Ice in last year’s semi-final.
CBR Brave 4 (Jan Safar 2, Geordie Wudrick 2,) Melbourne Ice 3 (Lasse Lassen 2, Joey Hughes). Period scores (1-1, 1-1, 1-1, 1-0).
Newcastle North Stars 3 (Scott Swiston 2, Hamish Powell). Perth Thunder 2 (Andrew Cox, Benjamin Breault). Period scores (1-1, 0-1, 1-0, 1-0).
New Castle North Stars 2 (Connor McLaughlin, Josh Harris), Canberra CBR Brave 1 (Geordie Wudrick). Period scores: (1-0, 1-0, 0-1).
Regular season standings:
1. Melbourne Ice 66 (points record).
2. Perth Thunder 57
3. Newcastle North Stars 52
4. Canberra CBR Brave 51
5. Melbourne Mustangs 37
6. Sydney Bears 28
7. Sydney Ice Dogs 24
8. Adelaide Adrenaline 21
Scoring leaders: Connor McLaughlin (Newcastle North Stars) 63 points (36 goals, 27 assists), Geordie Wudrick (Canberra GBR Brave) 54 (23, 31), Benjamin Breault (Perth Thunder) 53 (27,26), Michael Dorr (Perth Thunder) 53 (20, 33), Wehebe Darge (Adelaide Adrenaline) 52 (20, 32), Casey Kubara (Canberra CBR Brave) 50 (16, 34), Mathieu Guertin (Canberra CBR Brave) 49 (18, 31), Jason Baclig (Melbourne Ice) 49 (24, 25).