Before we get to the accolades and praise that the Carolina Thunderbirds very much deserve after claiming the Federal Hockey League’s Commissioner’s Cup with a 4-3 overtime win last night, we must first show some appreciation for their vanquished foe, the Elmira Enforcers.
When the Enforcers went down 2-0 in the series, and then saw arguably their two best players get suspended, you may recall we said the series was effectively over. To that point they had been dominated and again, losing two of their most important players made the challenge even tougher for them.
Well, as they always say, that’s why they play the games. Because over the final two games of the series, the Enforcers played absolutely terrific hockey, and showed a ton of guts, heart, and determination along the way.
Yes, they ultimately fell in four games, but to stretch the series to four games, and damn near a fifth, was one hell of a showing, especially against a team that very well could go down as the best in FHL history.
Down 2-0 in the series, the Enforcers returned to home ice and a big crowd and stunned everyone, including us at BLH, with a 7-2 drubbing of the Thunderbirds in Game 3, with forward Brandon Vuic shining in that win, racking up four points while minor league goalie legend Nick Niedert made 42 saves to stretch the season another night.
Then in Game 4 when Carolina scored first, you couldn’t help but wonder if they had woken up and if we were in store for another blowout. But no, on their home ice the Enforcers wouldn’t allow that to happen, rallying twice in the game to send it to overtime. The first time scoring two goals to take a 2-1 lead and get everyone thinking, “Holy cow, they could force a fifth game, and if that happens, anything is possible.” Then again late in the third after the Thunderbirds had stormed back to take a 3-2 lead, scoring (albeit a controversial goal) to force the overtime period where they eventually fell.
It was one of the most intense, nail-biting games we’d followed along with in a long while, and this is without us having a dog in the fight. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people in the arena.
Again, Niedert was masterful last night, making 43 saves and almost single-handedly keeping the Enforcers in the game at times. Between him and Passingham, we saw some of the most impressive goaltending we’ve seen in the FHL in a long time, as both were basically up against a firing squad in all four games of the series.
And then there’s the players who shined. Brandon Vuic had eight points in the four games, and you have to think that if somehow the Enforcers had found a way to rally and win it all, that he would have likely been the Finals MVP. Gavin Yates was masterful dishing the puck, Sean Reynolds scored big goals, and Mitch Atkins impressed us with his all-around ability, including a go-ahead goal last night.
So while the Enforcers did ultimately come up short of their goal of winning it all, the team has a ton to build on going forward, and a ton to be proud of this season. They finished second in the league, made the finals, and with their backs against the wall and everything stacked against them, found a way to get a win and came thisclose to forcing a decisive Game 5. That’s one hell of an effort by this team and its players.
Add in what this team accomplished off the ice, where they have a great fanbase that set the FHL record for most fans at a single game, and most fans in a season, and this is a franchise that hopefully sticks around the FHL for a long time. They’ve (for the most part) been a great addition to the FHL that has helped the league grow and legitimize, and will almost certainly be back next year with a team that’s hopefully every bit as good so we get more great hockey like we did in this series.
So here’s to you Elmira, thanks for a great season, and one hell of an effort in the Commissioner’s Cup Final.