Perhaps the rest of the North American Hockey League has had good reason to overlook the New Mexico Ice Wolves as that little franchise tucked far away in the desert.
After all, this is just the team’s third season. The team’s expansion campaign went about as well as can be expected, and season two was a road-trip nightmare brought on by the statewide, virus-related health mandates, meaning the team played the bulk of its games in other teams’ arenas. And that didn’t go so well, either.
So how could anyone expect something different this season?
Well, the Ice Wolves have proved to be a resilient bunch reliant on gritty defense, just enough offense and infused with character. The type of character that helped them bounce back from an 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series to beat regular-season champ Lone Star 1-0 on the road in the decisive fifth game and earn a spot in the Robertson Cup semifinals that start Friday in Blaine, Minnesota.
The Ice Wolves will face New Jersey in a best-of-three series. The winner will meet the winner of the other semifinal between St. Cloud and Anchorage in one game for the crown on Tuesday.
“We won the South Division, and that felt great and everything, but our main goal is to win the Robertson Cup,” said forward Sullivan “Sully” Scholle, who joined the Ice Wolves in January after getting cut from Des Moines of the USHL.
His time in Albuquerque was so impressive that he was named the team’s rookie of the year after scoring seven goals with nine assists in 22 games. He has added another six goals and six assists in the 10 postseason games.
“Our momentum is still rolling,” Scholle said of riding the 1-0 clinching victory over the Brahmas.
Coming home with the Robertson Cup – which is similar to the Stanley Cup in that each player’s name from the winning team gets engraved on it – would be special.
“It’s about team pride and you just feel good,” Scholle said. “You’re a champion.”
Despite staring at a deep hole, the Ice Wolves had no doubts that they would be in their current position.
“It was awesome,” forward Evan Carroll said. “When we were at home, down in the series 2-0, we were playing for our lives. But we made it 2-2 and we were carrying all the momentum. We were all on cloud nine, going into (Lone Star’s) building. We knew we had the upper hand. We were playing our best hockey and we carried that momentum into the Lone Star building and took care of business.”
If New Mexico plays the same way it did in that game, there is no stopping it, Carroll said.
“Everyone had a job, and everyone was taking part in doing the little things, like blocking shots and taking hits,” he said. “That was from the first line on down. We were playing perfect. Everyone was buying in, doing the little things that made us win that night.”
The series pits opponents who have not faced each other this season – and that is just fine, Carroll said.
“We don’t know anything about them and they don’t know anything about us,” he said. “But we’ll keep doing the little thing throughout our lineup and bear down on our opportunities.”
It’s been quite a ride for the club, Carroll said.
“We’ve been looked down at as an organization,” he said. “We’ve been looked at as a struggling organization. So underdog, or not, we have the chip on our shoulder. Guys who have been on this team have a chip on their shoulder. And everyone is hungry. We’re all healthy and feeling good. And that’s plenty for us to continue our stride into the playoffs.”
NOTES: Coach Phil Fox was named the league’s Coach of the Year and owner Stan Hubbard named the Executive of the Year. … The NAHL’s first team and the NAHL all-rookie team did not include any Ice Wolves players.