There’s nothing like a Game 7 in the playoffs. Not that hockey playoffs need any more intensity, but a Game 7 tops the chart, especially when it comes to the championship round.
Fortunately for Rockford IceHogs fans back in 2007, Game 7 of the Colonial Cup Finals went the Hogs’ way. And the game was not short on intensity. The decisive tilt finished in a 3-1 final, and thanks to a late third-period goal by Rockford forward Nicolas Corbeil, the IceHogs had a little insurance for the final 1:33 of the game against the Kalamazoo Wings.
IceHogs center Kevin Ulanski was named the Colonial Cup Playoffs Most Valuable Player following the series clincher. But for Ulanski, he would also end up on the other side of a Game 7 Finals decision later in his career while skating with the Colorado Eagles (CHL).
“It’s tough because you go the entire season and playoffs and it comes down to just that one game for everything,” said Ulanski. “You wouldn’t ask for anything more, but to come up short by just one goal to win the whole thing sticks with you until you can get out there to play your next game the next season.”
That’s what happened to Ulanski’s Eagles in 2011, falling to Shreveport 2-1 in Game 7 on home ice. To add to the sting of the Game 7 loss was the fact that Ulanski had a game-tying goal waved off midway through the third period, a call the Madison, Wis. native says with a chuckle is “still questionable in his mind.”
Prior to turning pro, Ulanski skated at Denver University, winning two NCAA National Championships with the Pioneers. At the NCAA level, the tournament is a one-and-done situation, where if you lose, you go home, just like a Game 7, but every game.
“In the professional ranks when you get down to that last game, anything goes,” said Ulanski. “Guys are playing with injuries, but you know you have the entire offseason to recover. So there is a lot of gut checks, but you’ll do just about anything to win a championship. It’s nice when it goes your way.
“Not sure if it’s easier if you go through a seven-game series and lose, or if you lose in a one-and-done scenario.”
Ulanski was a key cog all season long for the IceHogs in 2006-07 leading up to the Colonial Cup Finals. After an up-and-down rookie season which he spent in the ECHL between the Long Beach Ice Dogs and Phoenix Roadrunners, Ulanski signed with the IceHogs. His 1.08 points per game were second best on the club and the pivot earned his first taste of the American Hockey League with a 13-game call up to the Milwaukee Admirals.
The success of the IceHogs in 2006-07 didn’t boil down to any one individual, however, but the team as a whole. The IceHogs featured nine, 15-plus goal scorers and not one regular skater had a negative plus/minus rating.
“I think with any championship team, especially that team we had in Rockford, the group of guys that we had and the closeness of the guys really stood out,” commented Ulanski. “There weren’t any cliques on the team and everyone seemed to get along well. You get that feeling what it’s like to win with your teammates and it makes it a lot of fun to come to the rink every day. I still keep in touch with a number of them ten years later.”
Entering Game 7 of the Colonial Cup Finals, the home team had won the previous six contests, including blowouts in Games 5 and 6 with the home team skating away with 6-1 wins. The IceHogs were hoping that by having the home-town fans on their side, it would be a tipping point in the finale.
With less than 48 hours to buy tickets for Game 7, over 6,200 fans showed up for the final ever United Hockey League game at the then Rockford MetroCentre, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Ulanski and his teammates.
“I remember the Kalamazoo series like it was like yesterday,” said Ulanski. “We had the brawl in Kalamazoo in Game 6, I believe it was, and the home team won every game. One of my favorite years in professional hockey was there in Rockford. The fans were awesome and that is something that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
The arena was electric on the warm Thursday evening in May from the moment that the doors opened. Ulanski was first to cash in putting the IceHogs up 1-0 in the first period. But it wasn’t his goal that stood out to him, it was the IceHogs final goal of the contest.
“The one I really remember is Corbs’ (Corbeil) goal late in the third period,” recalled Ulanski. “To be honest, I didn’t recall my goal was shorthanded, but when Corbs scored I just remember the crowd’s reaction and how loud it was in there. The fans were great and I remember at one stoppage of play Chaz Johnson dancing to the crowd.”
Ulanski would pace all IceHogs skaters in goals (4) in the Colonial Cup Finals and led the team with 21 points in the postseason en route to the MVP award.
Ulanski was one of five UHL-era IceHogs, and later became the only player from Colonial Cup Championship team, to play against the IceHogs in the AHL era. After signing on with a Martinson-led team once again in 2007-08 in Elmira (Jackals), Ulanski played the majority of the season in Milwaukee with the Admirals in the AHL. Overall, he would play seven games against Rockford and was greeted warmly in his return trips to the Forest City.
Following the 2007-08 campaign, Ulanski returned to the Rocky Mountain state, signing with the Colorado Eagles where he would spend his final six seasons of his playing career, becoming the second-leading scorer in franchise history.
The centerman retired following the 2013-14 season and made the jump to the business side of professional hockey, joining the Eagles front office staff in the corporate sales department.
Ulanski has a daughter Kailey (17) and resides in Loveland, Col.
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