Last season, the Washington Galaxy led the East virtually wire-to-wire, maintaining a steady single-digit lead for almost the entire season. This season was different, as the Hamilton Pistols and Quebec Tigres got off to surprisingly strong starts and the division remains tightly bunched in the early weeks. Over the last couple of weeks, though, the Galaxy have quietly kicked things into gear, going on a tear and opening up a double-digit advantage over their stumbling competitors. As the league hits midseason, Washington appears well-positioned for a return trip to the playoffs.
“That whole team should wear ninja outfits,” said New York Night C Brock Manning, whose team trails the Galaxy by 11 points. “They rarely look dominating, they don’t have a bunch of big-name stars… but damned if you don’t look up and see them pulling away every time. I don’t know how they do it.”
How do they do it? With a surprisingly potent and balanced offense, combined with a sturdy defense and solid goaltending. To the surprise of many observers, Washington is second in the league in goals with 104. The Galaxy’s top scorer is RW Jefferson McNeely, who has rebounded in a big way from a down year in 2015 to establish himself as a star. McNeely’s 18 goals and 36 points puts him in the top 10 in the league in both categories. McNeely’s emergence has taken considerable pressure off of linemate Casey Thurman, who was the team’s leading scorer in ’15 but got off to a slow start this year.
“I’m really glad to see Jefferson having a strong season,” said teammate Eddie Costello. “He’s an electric personality, and the fans are really getting to see that now that he’s breaking out. The people in DC are going to love this guy.”
But McNeely is far from the only quality scorer in the Galaxy’s lineup. Thurman (10 goals, 25 points) has been gaining steam during Washington’s recent run. Costello has done a great job setting up McNeely and Thurman, but is also a scoring threat in his own right (12 goals, 36 points). Washington has strong scorers on its second and third lines as well, including LW Walt Camernitz (15 goals, 29 points), RW Sindri Pentti (11 goals, 17 points), and C J.C. Marais (25 points)
“That’s what makes us so dangerous,” said Camernitz. “We pack a punch on all three lines, and we can score at any time. Some other teams, you contain their one or two big guys and you can shut them down. We’re not like that.”
Washington is no slouch in its own end, either. The Galaxy’s defensive prowess was a key reason they were able to push the heavily favored Anchorage Igloos to 7 games in last season’s SHL Finals, and if anything, they’re stronger this year. Defenseman Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom is the team’s chief enforcer, and his willingness to scrap is legendary around the league. But Washington is well stocked with solid two-way threat on the blue line. Top pairing Leonard Wright and Kevin Buchanan are strong playmakers at both ends, and second pairing Rusty Anderson and Grant Warriner provide a bit of a heavier, more defense-oriented look. The team also has several rugged wingers, most notably the hard-checking Pentti.
“A lot of teams in this league are imbalanced toward offense or defense,” said Buchanan. “We pride ourselves on being balanced. We can bang with the big boys, but we also have the speed and scoring ability to keep up with the faster clubs.”
Backstopping the defense is netminder Roger Orion, who has provided steady and drama-free prowess in the crease since the beginning. “Other goalies have flashier reps and bigger names,” said Costello. “But we’re happy to go to war with Roger any time. We know he’s going to take care of business back there.”
Overseeing the whole circus is the league’s most colorful coach, Rodney Reagle. A former goalie who was nicknamed “Reagle the Eagle” in his playing days, he’s done nothing to disprove the adage that goaltenders are a strange breed. Players, though, say that his offbeat style keeps the cluhbhouse loose even in tense moments.
“Coach, well… what can you say?” said Costello. “He’s one of a kind. And by that I mean he’s hard-core nuts. But we love that.”
Reagle keeps up a seemingly never-ending stream of pranks and jokes. Recently, in reaction to the “creepy clowns” stories circulating on the Internet, he had the visiting locker room at Constellation Center decorated with pictures of clowns.
“I’ve been in there,” said Reagle, “and afterward I had to curl up in the fetal position for a half hour. It’s totally going to unnerve our opponents. Think of it as psychological warfare.”
While creepy clowns may or may not be essential to Washington’s recent success, critics argue that the Galaxy are simply cleaning up against a weak division. As of this writing, none of the other teams in the East have an above-.500 record. The West, meanwhile, has a pair of powerhouses in the Igloos and the Michigan Gray Wolves. Even if Washington cruises back to the Finals, won’t they simply be crushed by whoever emerges from the West?
Reagle pointed out that people said the same thing last year, and the Galaxy nearly won the title. “If everyone wants to overlook us and say that we’re weak because our division is struggling, go ahead,” said the coach. “We’ll be happy to prove them wrong again.”