The SHL’s Western division is expected to be a dogfight this year, with three teams considered by most observers to have a shot at the crown. Two of those teams suffered major injuries that may affect the balance of power in the division.
The Dakota Rapids finished third last season, with their high-flying offense unable to overcome a leaky defensive unit and inconsistent goaltending. The team strengthened its blue-line corps in the offseason in the hopes of becoming a bit more balanced, but Dakota suffered a loss in that area this week. Veteran D Craig Werner notched his first point of the season in Friday’s 7-4 win over Seattle, scoring a third-period power play goal. Less than two minutes later, Werner was crumpled on the ice after a brutal knee-on-knee hit by Sailors LW Trevor Green, a former teammate.
Werner had to be helped off the ice, and after the swelling did not subside the next day, he went in for an MRI exam. The exam revealed significant damage, and the blue-liner is expected to be out for the next three weeks.
Werner was a solid two-way presence for Dakota last year, putting up 11 goals and 22 points. He was bumped to the second defensive pairing with Gustaf Bergstrom this season, where he is expected to provide a stabilizing presence. With Werner out, stay-home defender Marty Trammell will get additional playing time. Trammell will add some grit to Dakota’s defense, but he is generally regarded as too slow to fit the Rapids’ up-tempo style.
“Obviously, this is tough for us,” said Rapids coach Harold Engellund. “Craig’s a pretty rugged guy, so when he went down and didn’t bounce back up, right away you know it’s trouble. We hoped it might ease up the next day, but it got worse instead. He was barely able to walk on it. Now we’ve just gotta pray he responds well to treatment and gets back here. We need him.”
The day before Werner’s injury, the Anchorage Igloos might have suffered an even greater loss. In Thursday’s 5-3 win over (oddly enough) Seattle, Igloos C Nile Bernard got caught in a pileup near his own net. He came up limping, and was subsequently diagnosed with a lower-body injury. Anchorage team doctors expect that he too might miss up to three weeks.
Bernard was an essential part of Anchorage’s offense last season, anchoring the second line and scoring 17 goals and 37 points. He netted a pair of goals in the SHL Finals, as the Igloos took home the league’s inaugural title.
Igloos coach Sam Castor was visibly distraught while discussing Bernard’s injury. “Nile’s such a big piece of the puzzle for us,” Castor told reporters. “He’s strong on both ends of the ice, he’s a terrific passer, a good hard shooter, and he’s got a real gift for knowing where the play’s going. Our team isn’t built to rely on any one guy, but not having Nile for an extended period is going to hurt.”
Rookie C Derek Humplik has been tapped to take Bernard’s spot on the second line, and reserve F David Facinelli will see significantly more ice time in the coming weeks.
With the Igloos and Rapids both missing significant contributors for long periods, this would be a good chance for the Michigan Grey Wolves to separate themselves from the pack. Wolves coach Ron Wright is cautiously optimistic, but warned his team to avoid gloating. “There’s no denying that this provides us with an opportunity,” said Wright. “But I don’t want to hear any of my guys whooping it up out there. Hockey’s a fickle game, and I’m a big believer in karma. Next thing you know, it could be one of our big guns going down. We just need to keep our heads down and play the best game we can. And be extra careful when we play Seattle.”