Where do you start trying to describe the marvelous moments piled high to the rafters in last weekend's men's hockey series between the Sun Valley Suns and Boston Bulldogs?
For lack of better words you liken the high drama to something else, let's say, Boise State University's dramatic football win in January's Fiesta Bowl, the kind of enthralling contest where you walk away saying "Wow!" and "Best Game Ever."
"A movie couldn't have been written because no one would have believed it," said Frank Salvoni about the Suns-Bulldog series. And he was close to the action. The versatile former Suns player played valuable minutes for his New England mates on the Boston club.
Unlike the big business of the BSU situation, though, you're not going to find any requests for more stadium seating and a bigger budget in the wake of the mesmerizing finale to an incredible Suns season.
Classify the games under "Pure Sport," played for the sake of playing. There was nothing at stake, and absolutely everything on the line.
Both games were completely sold out. Outside the arena, there were turned-away faces peeking in at every window. Inside were 700 to 800 fans. In five years when they remember it, a couple of thousand might claim to have been there. Nobody left the rink. They wouldn't have dreamed of it.
They were there for two reasons. Certainly to watch great hockey and they were rewarded in spades. Primarily, they were there to see if the Suns could do what had never been done in the program's 32-year history—finish an undefeated, untied winter season.
It didn't happen.
Saturday night, the talented and skilled Bulldogs scored two goals in the final four minutes of regulation to force a 5-5 tie. Stunned, the Suns barely escaped the five-minute overtime period as goalie Ryan Thomson made five huge saves. And, in the overtime shootout, the fifth and sixth Bulldog shooters scored to give Boston a rink-silencing 7-6 OT victory.
"All big streaks end sometime," said Suns assistant captain Vilnis Nikolaisons.
But it was how it happened. And the "who" was also a factor in leaving the Suns with an unforgettable 23-1-0-1 record.
Friday, wing Nikolaisons made two scintillating passes to his center Jamie Ellison that Ellison buried for the two goals that capped Sun Valley's comeback from a 3-1 deficit for a 5-4 overtime triumph over a Bulldog team chocked full of former pros and Division 1 skaters.
The victory improved Sun Valley's season mark to 23-0-0 and set a franchise record for longest winning streak.
As Suns player Paul Cox said in simple terms during the Park City series March 2-3, "One thing winners do—they win." And one more win, 60 minutes of hockey, was all the Suns needed to run the table.
Boston had other ideas and plenty of players to call on.
First and foremost, the Bulldogs had Russian hockey immortal Igor Larionov centering their first line with former pro Sean Haggerty and University of Michigan skater Kevin O'Malley, who played for coach Red Berenson's Frozen Four team of 2002 in Ypsilanti.
They had the usual hockey mix of solid citizens and loose cannons. Their wild nature was most prominently displayed in 41-year-old rearguard Jeff Norton, the ex-University of Michigan collegian who played in 797 NHL games from 1987-2002 and was often hated so much by the fans that he was actually loved.
Throw in 37-year-old nine-year pro Steven King from Brown University and the New York Rangers and you can see what a veteran lineup it was.
But the wild card was the Bulldog goalie—Bobby Farrelly, 48, a famous filmmaker who has a home north of Ketchum. The Rhode Island product has a home here not because he's an engineering graduate of RPI but because he and his brother Peter Farrelly have brought babes like "Fever Pitch," "Kingpin," and "Dumb and Dumber" into the world.
Farrelly made 57 saves between the pipes for the Boston ReMax Rangers in their 4-3 and 7-2 losses to the Suns on resort ice in Jan. 2006. So everybody knew he could play a little. The question was, how much?
"We knew he was capable," said Salvoni, who scored three goals for the Suns against Farrelly last year. "But Bobby proved last weekend that he's not just a fair-weather goalie. He just played unbelievably. He played as well as any goalie could have played."
Farrelly (47 saves Friday) coughed up a 3-2 lead Friday night in large part because his best defenseman, Norton, was ejected early in the third period for amassing five penalties, and because Larionov followed Norton into the locker room shortly afterwards for having five penalties. Neither player liked living by those rules and took their time leaving the ice.
The Suns took advantage.
They equalized 4-4 when Nikolaisons waited and waited on the point during a power play and finally sent a perfect pass to his pivot Ellison in the slot. Ellison made no mistake.
Sun Valley gave up a game-tying goal with Farrelly off the ice for a sixth attacker and only 36 seconds left, but the Suns won it two minutes into sudden-death overtime on a strikingly similar relay from Nikolaisons to top scorer Ellison.
Rookie Suns player Jon Duval, who scored his biggest goal of the season early in the third on the power play tying it 3-3, said, "The timing between Villie and Jamie is incredible. Villie has the most patience of any player I've ever seen."
Saturday's season finale was extraordinary, start to finish. At the start was an heart-tugging pre-game sled hockey lap around the ice featuring Sun Valley Adaptive Sports kids pushed by Suns players. At the finish was a mob scene around "Kingpin" Farrelly.
The Suns looked good early. Defenseman Eric Demment sent Nikolaisons in alone and Villie beat Farrelly low. Whenever Boston scored in the first two periods, the Suns answered immediately—leading goal scorer Ryan Enrico (24 goals) doing it twice and crafty veteran Billy Tryder once.
But the biggest sign that it was going to be a different night came when Farrelly made a spectacular glove save on Ryan McDonald's breakaway with only one second left in the first period. It would have been 3-1, but it stayed 2-1.
McDonald whacked Farrelly's pads with his stick, a hockey sign of respect, as the teams skated off the ice.
Another sign of trouble was the Suns, having outscored opponents 56-26 on the power play this season, couldn't do a thing with a man advantage. They were 0-for-6 Saturday. Remember, Norton and Larionov were on the ice all game. And Farrelly was at his best, dislodging the net in time to keep Enrico's top shelf goal from giving the Suns a 6-3 lead in the third.
Suns coach Chris Benson, having enjoyed success with such a strategy all season, played conservatively and put the Suns in a 1-2-2 defensive alignment in the third period. It worked when it worked, and then it didn't. On the power play, Haggerty quietly beat Thomson with 3:47 left and suddenly it was a 5-4 game.
Larionov, who earlier had made an amazing flip pass that O'Malley high-sticked past Thomson on the power play for a 3-3 tie, made another typical great pass to O'Malley for the equalizer with two minutes left. It had been a sure thing at 5-3. It was now a dogfight at 5-5.
Stunned, the Suns were the first team on the ice for the four-on-four sudden death overtime. Meanwhile, Larionov was still lecturing his Boston pupils on the bench. Salvoni said, "Iggy starts to talk and everybody shuts up. It was a respect that I've never seen before."
Thomson stopped five Bulldog shots in overtime to force the inevitable shootout—Farrelly at one end, under the balcony, and Thomson at the other, by the Beer Garden, just like in the NHL. Unlike the NHL, however, they didn't clear the ice before the shootout so the surface was chopped up and rough. It was a factor.
Fans yelled "Let's Go Suns!"
The first eight shooters all failed. Thomson stopped Haggerty with his leg. Farrelly made a kick save on Paul Baranzelli. Thomson gloved O'Malley's attempt. Enrico didn't get good wood on his shot and Andrew Pearsall shot the puck into Thomson's gut.
Nikolaisons, having beaten Farrelly on a breakaway in the first, whiffed on his shot—the chopped-up ice playing a role. Benson said, "We caught a couple of rollers in the shootout." Next up was Larionov and he had similar control problems, just managing to shoot the puck into Thomson's chest.
The shootout was now in a sudden death situation and Ryan McDonald had a chance to win it, but Farrelly denied him with his stick. Up stepped Brown's Steven King, and he scared the daylights out of the Suns by hitting the top shelf—the first shooter to go high.
It left rookie Blake Jenson to keep the season alive. He had volunteered thinking he'd have a chance for the winner. Now his legs quaked knowing he could only tie it. Jenson got Farrelly committed and somehow scooped the puck into the net, while falling sideways into the mush. Not totally pretty. That brought up Jeff Norton. The Wild Thing took the puck and swept far, far to the right, into smoother ice. "Everybody wondered where he was going," said Salvoni. Norton bent back in and sent a screamer to the far corner, under Thomson's glove for the eventual winner.
Farrelly stopped Ellison with his skate and was quickly joined by his happy teammates.
"It's such a crapshoot," said Benson about the shootout. "But that certainly was a big goal by Blake. There were a few skilled guys coming at Ryan.
"Sure, it's a little painful, but the guys all realize that they've busted their tail ends for three months. They were winning, and winning big games and playing unselfishly. It was great to see. We swept McCall and Jackson Hole, St. Nicks, Beacon Hill and Seattle. It was a very tough schedule."
Original Suns player John Burke said before Saturday's game, "This is the best Suns team ever." Afterward, Nikolaisons added, "We're proud of what we did this season."
For a hockey summary from the Boston series and final Suns (23-1-0-1) season statistics, check out today's Express Web site. Also online are Jon Duval's latest locker room notes. Next week's Local Life will have more photos of the games.