Leading the best-of-seven playoffs by a 3-2 margin, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles return to the Salt Palace to host the Milwaukee Admirals in today's 7 p.m. Game 6 of their IHL Turner Cup quarterfinals.
Funny thing is, folks weren't totally sure if this game would be necessary.Before the series even started, some wondered if the Eagles would even last through five games with the Admirals. After ending the regular season in a mini-slump, Salt Lake was forced to open against Milwaukee - a team the Eagles managed to defeat only twice in 10 regular-season meetings.
Add to that the fact that the Admirals' NHL parent club, the Vancouver Canucks, missed the NHL playoffs and helped reinforce the Milwaukee roster by sending down a handful of players from the big league. Plus the 2-3-2 home-ice arrangements for the International Hockey League playoffs, which sometimes seems to favor the team that opens on the road. If host Salt Lake had suffered one home loss in the first two games, the S.L. postseason could have come to a halt on the road.
The Eagles won the first two, ensuring that, despite even a worst-case scenario of three losses in Milwaukee, playoff hockey would return to the Salt Palace.
The two teams split the Wednesday-Friday games, with the Eagles earning the key Friday night contest to improve their advantage to 3-1. In claiming the third-game victory, Salt Lake rushed out to a five-goal first-period lead, held off a late-game Milwaukee comeback attempt and won what many considered to be the crucial contest of the series.
Forced to play Saturday's contest in the afternoon, the Admirals came out flat and the Eagles jumped out to early leads - it looked like Salt Lake would end the series with a clinching fourth-game triumph and move on to the semifinals to face Indianapolis.
Instead, the Admirals forced a sixth game by rallying for a 6-3 Saturday win. Game Six now becomes the latest most-important game for both teams.
"We're up 3-2 and we're at home," said Eagle Coach Bob Francis. "We've now got to take care of business at home."
His counterpart, Milwaukee Coach Ron Lapointe, knows that the initial pressure is on the Admirals to take the series to the seven-game distance. Only two teams in IHL history have won a playoff series after falling to a 3-1 game deficit. "But they (the Eagles) know that if they don't win the next game, then the pressure reverts back to them for the last one."
The Admirals outshot the Eagles 98-58 and outscored their opponents 17-12 in three games in Milwaukee. The Admirals also got renewed scoring efforts from some of their regular-season scoring leaders - in the three-game homestand, the frontline of David Bruce, Rob Murphy and Todd Hawkins accounted for 10 goals and eight assists.
"In order for us to be successful, we can't wait for anyone else," said Francis. "We have to dictate how we play."