Strong Showing for Tigres at SHL Annual Awards

Starlight Hockey LeagueThe SHL’s third annual awards banquet had a definite theme.  Several of the awards went to members of the Quebec Tigres, who went from finishing in last place in 2017 to coming within a game of winning their first-ever SHL title.  “The Tigres went on a remarkable journey this season,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  “It’s great to see that journey recognized with these very well-deserved honors.”  As always, the awards were voted on by SHL players, coaches, and media.

The 2018 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: LW Walt Camernitz, Quebec Tigres

Camernitz signed with Quebec as a free agent this season, landing a five-year, $20 million deal.  The Tigres hoped that Camernitz would provide a spark for their stagnant offense, and he provided it in spades.  He wound up recording 31 goals and 74 points, both good enough to place him in the league’s top 10.  In addition to his stellar performance, he elevated his teammates’ games; linemates Stephane Mirac and Mikhail Ilyushin both had career seasons beside him.

“When you are a big-name free agent, there is a great weight on you to perform,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme.  “Walt took that very seriously, and he gave us everything we could have hoped for.  I am most grateful for him.”

Other finalists for the MVP honor included Hamilton C Calvin Frye, Anchorage C Jake Frost, and Washington RW Jefferson McNeely.

Coach of the Year: Martin Delorme, Quebec Tigres

This season has been a sweet vindication for Delorme, who walked away from a Michigan team on the cusp of championship contention in order to help his hometown team get off the ground.  In only the third season of the Tigres’ existence, Delorme guided the club to the Finals and nearly to the Vandy.

“Coach Delorme has kept us together and focused on playing our best,” said Mirac.  “He doesn’t accept excuses.  But he’s also a good man to play for, and we know that he is solid behind us all the way.

Delorme beat out Hamilton’s Keith Shields. Michigan’s Ron Wright, and Anchorage’s Sam Castor to win the honor.


Rookie of the Year: 
LW Lix Darnholm, Boston Badgers

Darnholm was universally regarded as the best pure scorer in the draft, so it came as little surprise when the expansion Badgers chose the 19-year-old Swede as their franchise centerpiece with the top puck.  Although Boston had a rough debut season, Darnholm delivered on his considerable promise, scoring nearly a quarter of the Badgers’ total goals.  He led all rookies in goals with 29 and in points with 60.

“Lix is a joy to watch on the ice,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.  “He’s a fluid skater and a sharp passer, and he has a remarkably heavy shot for a guy who’s as skinny as he is.  And he’s got a sense of the game a lot beyond his years.  I’ve guzzled a lot of Maalox coaching this team, but not because of Lix.”

Darnholm withstood a surprisingly strong challenge from Kansas City C Darien Picard to win the votes.  Also receiving consideration were Quebec D Laurie Workman, Kansas City RW Zachary Merula, and Washington G Darrell Bondurant.

Sharp Shooter Award and Commissioner’s Trophy: RW Jefferson McNeely, Washington Galaxy

The Sharp Shooter Award and the Commissioner’s Trophy are the two awards that are not given out as the result of a vote.  The Sharp Shooter Award is given to the player who finished with the highest goal total, while the Commissioner’s Trophy is bestowed on the player with the most points.  This season, for the first time ever, both awards went to the same player: McNeely, who was a shining star in a difficult season for the Galaxy. For the second straight year, Hamilton’s Steven Alexander was the runner-up for the Sharp Shooter award, finishing with one goal fewer than McNeely’s 57.

Meanwhile, the Washington winder finished the year one shy of the century mark in points, adding 42 assists to his league-leading goal total.  That gave him a comfortable eight-point margin over Hamilton’s Claude Lafayette.

“Obviously, this is a team sport, and we really want to win things as a team,” said McNeely.  “But this was a good season for me personally, and I’m glad that I’ll be able to take some positive memories away from the year.  I’d rather have a Vandy on the mantle, sure, but this is a good consolation prize.”


Goalie of the Year: 
Riki Tiktuunen, Quebec Tigres

This award was a bit of a surprise, as it was the first time that Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist didn’t take home the trophy.  In 2018, Lundquist had a bit of a down season by his usual standards, but still remained among the league’s elite, going 38-12-4 with a 1.69 GAA and a .934 save percentage.  But some combination of the Tigres’ surprising season and a desire to reward a fresh face led the voters to select Tiktuunen instead, in a close vote.

Tiktuunen had a very strong campaign, and played a key role in Quebec’s success.  On the season, Tiktuunen went 31-20-1 with a 2.03 GAA and a .930 save percentage.  The Finnish-born netminder gained a reputation around the league for his stoic, cold-blooded demeanor and his ability to avoid getting rattled in difficult situations.

“Riki’s so cool and calm that he helps keep the rest of us calm,” said teammate Richard McKinley.  “He’s like a security blanket, because you know he’s going to take care of business no matter what happens.”

Defenseman of the Year: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan Gray Wolves

This is the second straight year that a Wolves player won this honor; Kronstein’s teammate Max Madison captured the award last season.  Kronstein is not as pugilistically inclined as Madison, who is infamous for dropping the gloves at the slightest provocation.  However, Kronstein is just as capable a defender as his counterpart on Michigan’s top pairing, leading the league in blocked shots and among the top five in takeaways.

In addition to his defensive excellence, Kronstein is a strong contributor in the offensive end.  His 59 points were the second-most among SHL blueliners in 2018, and his 18 goals and +34 rating led all defensemen.  “Fritz is an amazingly dynamic young player,” said coach Ron Wright.  “He’s a strong physical presence, but he’s also surprisingly fast, and he’s an excellent scorer and passer.  He’s the total package.”

Kronstein emerged victorious out of a crowded field that included 2016 winner Raymond Smyth of Hamilton, along with Dakota’s Matt Cherner, Hershey’s Reese Milton, and New York rookie Donald Duckworth.

 

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Galaxy Parts Ways with Reagle

In a move that surprised many around the league, the Washington Galaxy this week announced that they had fired coach Rodney Reagle.  In making the move, the Galaxy part ways with the league’s most colorful coach and a man who led the team to a 129-105-10 record and two Finals appearances – but also a coach whose comic act was reportedly wearing thin with an aging roster that seemed to be heading in the wrong direction.

Rodney Reagle

There was a good deal of discontent in the capital city after the Galaxy finished with their first-ever sub-.500 record, going 31-32-1.  Washington was widely expected to take a step back this season after losing several key players in free agency, including LW Walt Camernitz, RW Sindri Pentti, and backup netminder Ron Mason.  Throughout the first half of the season, the Galaxy surprised with a strong performance, contending for a playoff spot for much of the season.  However, the team struggled to get production beyond their top line and collapsed after the trade deadline, going 7-19-1 over the last six weeks of the season – a stretch that sealed Reagle’s fate.

“Rodney Reagle is a good man and a good coach, and a guy I’m proud to call my friend,” said Galaxy GM Ace Adams.  “We’ve achieved a lot together, and I thank him for all the good times.  But we’ve made the difficult decision to go in a new direction.”

Reagle had a well-earned reputation as the clown prince of the SHL; he was famous around the league for dressing up in costumes on the bench and for giving post-game interviews laced with movie quotes and strange accents.  The coach’s public goofiness made him a controversial figure around the league, and even reportedly within the Galaxy front office.  As long as the team was winning, Reagle was generally viewed as charmingly eccentric.  Once the team started to slide, however, it was easy to paint the coach as insufficiently serious.

“I’ve always known that my sense of humor was a high-wire act,” said Reagle.  “As long as you win, you can be totally coo-coo bananas and everything thinks it’s a sign of a quirky genius.  When you stop winning, suddenly you’re not funny anymore.  I thought two trips to the Finals would have bought me a little more rope, but turns out there was just enough to hang me with.”

There are conflicting reports about whether the coach had lost the clubhouse.  Some sources said that many players found Reagle’s antics silly and embarrassing.  Others claimed that the players were actually quite loyal to Reagle, and that the decision was driven by owner Perry Dodge, who reportedly felt the coach was too loose with the team.

Several players spoke out in support of Reagle after word of the firing broke.  “Coach Reagle is a great guy to play for,” said C Eddie Costello.  “He treats you like a grown man and he keeps things light and fun.  I feel bad that we let him down.”

Adams declined to comment on who Reagle’s replacement might be, other than to confirm that assistant coach Herman Chambers would be “strongly considered.”  According to team sources, other possible candidates include Michigan assistant Morris Thompson, Anchorage assistant Kyle Barrow, and minor-league coach Peter James.

CHL Update: Rhinos Freeze Minnesota for First Title

The Virginia Rhinos came into this year’s CHL season with some unfinished business.  The Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate had a strong season in 2017 and felt that they should have won the Howard Trophy, the league’s championship.  But in the Finals, they ran into the Utah Owls and red-hot goalie Sherman Carter, and suffered an upset loss in five games.

“We all felt really unhappy about the way last year ended,” said D Rennie Cox.  “It’s like eating a great meal and then having your dessert taken away.  We were all hungry for revenge.”

Once the Rhinos made it to the postseason, they were not to be denied.  They barreled through the Eastern playoff, dismissing the Oshawa Drive in a three-game sweep.  Then in the Finals, it took Virginia only five games to knock off the Minnesota Freeze and claim their long-awaited trophy.

“I was impressed with how focused our team was,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Everyone in here was willing to work hard and do whatever it took to get this done.”

Virginia’s path to the championship started with an epic battle at Northwoods Auditorium.  The Rhinos got off to an early two-goal lead, but the Freeze rallied with a pair in the third to force overtime; the game-tying blast from D Brian Coldivar came with just 1:20 left in regulation.  The game wound up lasting until the third overtime, making it the longest contest in league history.  Finally, 37 seconds into the sixth period, RW Chris Quake pounced on a loose puck in front of the crease and putting it past Minnesota goalie Curt Freeze for a 3-2 win.  “Honestly, we were all kind of too tired to celebrate,” said Quake.

The Rhinos were able to shake off their exhaustion in time for Game 2.  They got off to a fast start, scoring three goals in the first six and a half minutes, and cruised to a 4-2 win,  Goalie Gus Parrish made 35 stops to back up his team’s offensive effort.  “Winning the first two games on enemy ice, that was huge,” said Marsh.  “It really put us in the catbird seat for the series.”

With the action shifting back to Tidewater for Game 3, Virginia outshot Minnesota 41-28.  Although Freeze made a valiant effort to keep his team in it, the Rhinos tied it up on a Cox slapper with 9:44 remaining, then got the game-winner from LW Jayden Gunn in overtime for a 4-3 triumph.  Minnesota squeaked out a 1-0 win in Game 4 to avert the sweep, on the strength of LW Henry Van Alpin‘s power-play goal in the third period.  In addition to losing the game, the Rhinos lost C Cyril Perignon, one of their top scorers, to a lower-body injury.  But the Rhinos shook off the loss of their top center and finished things off in Game 5 with a big third period, striking three times with the man advantage to pull out a 5-3 win despite being outshot 32-19.

The post-game celebration was led by Cox, who was named Finals MVP after putting up 5 goals and 5 assists in the series.  “This was a real showcase for Rennie,” said Marsh.  “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be playing for me next year, but that’s life in the minors.  Onward and upward!”

Now that the Rhinos have their title, many of the players (like Cox) are looking forward to joining the Shockers and helping them to a championship.  “We’ve got great chemistry here and we’ve accomplished a lot,” said C Cyril Perignon.  “The next step is for us to get up to the SHL and go from there.  We think we’ve got the nucleus of a potential Saskatchewan dynasty right here.”

Continue reading “CHL Update: Rhinos Freeze Minnesota for First Title”

Tigres Looking Up After Finals Loss

The SHL Finals were a wild ride for the Quebec Tigres.  They dropped the first three games, including wo at home, and appeared to be on their way to a sweep at the hands of the Anchorage Igloos’ postseason bulldozer.  Then they won the next three games, a dramatic momentum swing that had the fans at Centre Citadelle dreaming of a title.  Then, in a back-and-forth Game 7, Quebec came up just short.

In the locker room after the final game, the Tigres’ mood was slightly disappointed, but still positive.  After all, this trip to the Finals – on the heels of their first-ever season with an above-.500 record – marks them as a team on the rise in an Eastern Division that seems up for grabs.

“We didn’t get the ultimate prize,” said LW Walt Camernitz, “but we proved that we belong.  We proved that we can play at the highest level.  That gives us a ton of confidence heading into next season.”

Although Quebec had home-ice advantage in the Finals, having finished with one more point than Anchorage in the regular season, the Tigres were widely considered the underdogs.  The Igloos were making their third trip to the Finals in the last four seasons, and they’d just finished sweeping the mighty Michigan Gray Wolves in the Western playoff.

“Everyone was sure that we didn’t stand a chance against a talented veteran club like [the Igloos],” said D Ward Jones.  “They thought we were fun and scrappy, but basically a fluke.  We showed them that we weren’t.”

Martin Delorme

The outcome of the season was a vindication for Tigres coach Martin Delorme, who walked away from a strong Michigan squad to become the first coach of his home-province team.  The Wolves went on to win the Vandy without him the following season, while Quebec languished in the basement.  As recently as last season, when Delorme was feuding with his star player and attracting unwelcome attention for his personal foibles, it seemed as though the coach might have made a fatal mistake.

Now, though, Delorme is being hailed as a local hero.  “When I was a boy, I dreamed of starring for the Canadiens, to be the next Guy Lafleur,” said Delorme.  “Too bad I was not that good.  But now I am living my dream in a different way.”

Delorme lauded his club for a valiant effort, and believes this run could be the building block for future greatness.  “This series was the greatest test we have ever faced, and we showed our courage and strength,” said Delorme.  “I do not expect this to be a one-year thing.  We can learn our lessons from this experience and become even stronger.”

Bellmore Chosen as Finals MVP

Harvey Bellmore

In a move that few would have predicted before the series began, the SHL selected Anchorage Igloos C Harvey Bellmore as its 2018 Finals MVP.  Bellmore was acquired by the Igloos at the trading deadline, but he spent most of his time on the third line, where he contributed quietly.  But in a series that was defined by defense and balanced offensive contributions, Bellmore and the third line – nicknamed “The Circus Squad” for their off-kilter personality – came through when Anchorage needed them most.

“If you’d tried to tell me before this series started that Harvey Bellmore was going to be MVP,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor, “I probably would have had you locked up in an asylum, just to be safe.  But here we are!”

Bellmore finished the series with 5 points (3 goals and 2 assists), which tied him for the second-highest total on the team, behind only D Ted Keefe.  But it was in Game 7 where Bellmore really made his contribution to the series.  Twice in the second period, Bellmore scored goals that erased Quebec leads.  Then in the third period, he assisted Broni Zhlotkin on what proved to be the game-winning goal.

“We’ve always been a team that thrives on depth,” said C Jake Frost.  “We trust everybody, down to the last man.  Even when that’s Harvey.”

Along with the MVP award, Bellmore received a year’s supply of canned salmon and a Kia Stinger sports sedan.  “I love to drive fast, so I’m really excited about this car,” said the Igloos center.  “And salmon salad is supposed to be good for you, so yay!”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 7

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 4, QUEBEC TIGRES 3

There were several points this season when it appeared that the Anchorage Igloos would fail in their quest for their second Vandy.  The team hovered around the .500 mark for much of the season.  Coach Sam Castor called his club out for a lack of effort at one point.  Even as late as the trading deadline, it wasn’t clear whether the Igloos would be able to hold on to a playoff spot.

Anchorage finished the season strong, however, and seemed prepared to rampage through the postseason.  They swept the Michigan Gray Wolves in the division playoff, then won three straight in the Finals to push the Quebec Tigres to the brink.  But in one final, cruel twist of fate, they proceeded to lose three straight to Quebec to even the series, leaving it up to a winner-take-all Game 7 at Centre Citadelle.

“I suppose we could have made it harder on ourselves,” said C Jake Frost, “but I’m not sure how.”

Fortunately, Anchorage was up to the challenge.  In a game for the ages, the Igloos rallied from behind twice with the help of some unlikely faces and squeezed out a 4-3 victory, becoming the first two-time SHL champion.

“We really went through hell to get here,” said Castor, “but that makes the victory so much sweeter.”

After being manhandled by the Tigres in Game 6, the Igloos needed to get their offense back on track in this contest.  They got off to a decent start in the first period, outshooting Quebec 11-8, but they couldn’t get one past goalie Riki Tiktuunen.  Worse yet, Castor sensed that some of his stars – particularly Frost and RW Nicklas Ericsson – were pressing a bit.

“We were definitely playing tight out there early,” said the Anchorage coach.  “I knew we needed to do something to shake things up.”

To top it all off, D Tony Citrone was penalized in the first couple minutes of the game for a slashing call that the Igloos considered highly questionable.  On the ensuing power play, Tigres RW Stephane Mirac deflected a knuckling puck just inside the post to give the home team a 1-0 lead that stood up through period’s end.

Heading into the second, Castor decided to take a gamble.  The Igloos coach decided to give more ice time to their bottom line of LW Waldo Miranda, C Harvey Bellmore, and RW Broni Zhlotkin.  That group earned themselves the nickname “The Circus Squad” both because of their penchant for practical jokes and their tendency to make on-ice mistakes.  Castor tends to limit their shifts for that reason, but he gambled that their goofy nature might be an advantage in a high-pressure game like this.

“I figured they were too dumb to get scared,” said the Igloos coach.

Castor’s hunch paid off in a big way.  Two and a half minutes into the second period, during an extended offensive shift, Bellmore drifted close to the net and redirected a shot from D Olaf Martinsson over Tiktuunen’s right pad to tie the score at 1.

The deadlock lasted less than a minute, however, as D Laurie Workman fired a slapshot that beat a screened Ty Worthington to put Quebec back in front.

Castor’s solution?  Put the Circus Squad right back out there.  And just 16 seconds after Workman’s tally, Bellmore went top-shelf on Tiktuunen to tie the score back up.  To celebrate his offensive explosion, Bellmore beat his chest and let out a Tarzan scream.

“Sometimes, you just need to send the nutcases out there,” said Castor.

Later on in the period, LW Jerry Koons got the top line on the board, finishing a breakaway by beating Tiktuunen on the glove side and giving the Igloos their first lead of the game.

“We couldn’t let the bottom line do all the work,” quipped Koons.

The Igloos weren’t quite out of the woods yet.  A minute and a half into the third period, Mirac fired a laser past Worthington for his second goal of the game, tying the score.  Once again, the Circus Squad came to the rescue.  Bellmore, trying for a hat trick, fired a shot that wound up in a scrum in front of the net.  The puck wound up bouncing to Miranda, who fed it over to Zhltokin.  The rugged winger wrestled free of his defender and slapped it home to put the Igloos ahead for good.

“If anyone predicted that Broni Zhlotkin was going to get the goal that won the Finals, I want to meet that guy,” said Castor.  “He and I are going down to the racetrack.”

Anchorage still had to weather a couple of late Quebec rushes, but Worthington was on duty and kept the Tigres from tying the score.  With about two minutes left in the game, Mirac skated behind the net and tried a wraparound shot, but Worthington got over in the nick of time and deflected it with his skate blade.

The postgame handshake line was far from the usual perfunctory routine.  Players on both side squeezed each other’s arms, thumped chests, and even hugged.  It was a gesture of mutual respect between a pair of worthy adversaries who expect to see each other again in a situation like this.

“Quebec gave us everything we could handle,” said Castor.  “Stephane and his team deserve a ton of credit.  We got the Vandy this time, but I’m sure they’ve got one ahead of them.”

For his part, Tigres coach Martin Delorme kept his focus on the future.  “We learned a lot of lessons here that will serve us well,” Delorme told reporters.  “We faced a great team and nearly beat them.  I cannot wait for next season.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 7”

2018 SHL Finals – Game 6

QUEBEC TIGRES 3, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 0

In the wake of today’s Game 6, the Anchorage Igloos‘ locker room was completely silent.  After being thoroughly outplayed by the Quebec Tigres and defeated 3-0, after seeing their 3-0 series lead slip away entirely, after seeing the momentum of these Finals shift away from them, the Igloos stared at the floor and tried to process what had happened.  The team that was expecting to be hoisting its second Vandy by now, and the outcome of this game left them reeling.

“What we showed out there tonight isn’t us,” said C Jake Frost.  “If we can’t put out a better effort than that, we should just go give [the Tigres] the trophy right now.”

“We have no one to blame but ourselves for letting it get this far,” said coach Sam Castor.

From the drop of the puck, Anchorage looked confused and ill at ease.  The orange-clad crowd at Centre Citadelle generated a tremendous roar, and it clearly fueled the hometown Tigres.  Quebec completely dominated the first period, outshooting the Igloos 15-5.  “It felt like we were just stuck in quicksand out there,” said LW Jerry Koons.

Given how thoroughly Quebec controlled play in the period, it’s a bit remarkable that they ended the period with only a one-goal lead.  RW Sindri Pentti, who started the game on a hunch by coach Martin Delorme, put the puck in the next only 13 seconds in.  But Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington made a number of acrobatic saves to keep the game from getting out of hand.

Unfortunately, Worthington couldn’t hold the fort forever.  Less than two minutes into the second period, Quebec D Dmitri Kalashnikov blasted a shot from the blue line that bounced off the crossbar.  The Igloos goalie couldn’t corral the rebound, and RW Flint Robinson stuffed it home for a 2-0 lead.

“Steel is great at parking himself in front of the net and cleaning up the garbage,” said Tigres D Ward Jones.  “That’s the kind of rugged, hard-working game that we play.”

Although Quebec didn’t dominate play to quite the same extent in the second, they did manage to control the pace of the game with their suffocating defense.  Once again, they held Anchorage to a mere five shots in the period.

“Ten shots is a slow period for us typically,” said Frost.  “To get only ten shots in two periods?  That’s unheard of for us.  They just completely bottled us up.”

Continuing their pattern of early-period strikes, Tigres C Phil Miller beat Worthington high on the glove side with two minutes gone in the third to give the home team a three-goal lead and send the home crowd into orbit.  “I thought they maybe would cheer enough for the roof to fall down,” said C Drustan Zarkovich.

The desperate Igloos were finally able to generate some offensive momentum in the third; they ripped off 11 shots in the period.  But Quebec goalie Riki Tiktuunen stood firm in the crease, calmly turning aside every blast; when all was said and done, he had stopped 21 shots to complete his second shutout of the series.  Even when Tigres D Laurie Workman committed a pair of late penalties to give unwitting aid to the visitors, the Igloos were unable to convert.

“We didn’t really find our game until the third, and by then it was too late,” said Koons.

Now, if the Igloos are going to claim the Vandy they’d assumed was theirs, they will need to erase the memory of the Tigres’ three-goal third period in Game 5 to secure a come-from-behind win, and they’ll need to forget the way they were manhandled in this game.  “We need to remember that we’re the better team, and we need to play like it,” said Frost.

For their part, the Tigres say they aren’t going to take a Game 7 victory for granted, either.  “Momentum disappears the minute the puck is dropped,” said Delorme.  “Tomorrow is a one-game series, and we must treat it that way.  What came before is only the prologue to the story.”

Continue reading “2018 SHL Finals – Game 6”