Going into the last week of the season, the East’s defending champion, the Washington Galaxy, trailed the Hershey Bliss by two points. But with the two teams scheduled to meet on the last day of the season, Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle made a prediction. “Just you watch,” Reagle said to reporters during Saturday’s game. “It’s all going to come down to that game, and we’re both going to be tied. One game for all the marbles. Because that’s exactly the sick sense of humor the hockey gods have.”
As it turns out, Reagle’s prediction was exactly right. When the Bliss and Galaxy faced off at Constellation Center on Friday, they had identical 33-23-3 records. Just as Reagle had foreseen, the winner of the game would win the division.
As it turned out, Washington defended its division crown with a dramatic come-from-behind 5-3 win that left the home crowd ecstatic and the visiting Bliss heartbroken.
“Couldn’t have asked for a more thrilling finish, eh?” said Reagle with a grin.
The Galaxy came into the season finale riding a six-game winning streak. The Bliss were nearly as hot, having won six of their last seven, the only loss a 3-1 decision to eventual Western champ Michigan on Tuesday.
Both teams were confident heading into the deciding game. “We feel like we’ve got the edge,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine, anchor of the team’s high-powered Love Line. “Our offense is clicking, and Jesse [Clarkson] has really sealed up the net for us. We’re ready to take this.”
Countered Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely, “This game is ours. We’re peaking at the right time, and we’re playing at home in front of our awesome fans. We always come up big in big moments, and this is about as big as they get.”
The first period was a raucous, high-tempo affair, with the crowd at full volume. Both teams came out of the period with some good news. The Galaxy were able to contain the Love Line, denying the high-scoring trio any good looks at the net. On the other hand, Hershey got offense from an unexpected source, as third-line C Henry Constantine slipped a pair of power-play goals past Washington netminder Roger Orion, quieting the crowd and giving the visitors a 2-0 edge after the first period.
In the second period, the pace slowed a bit as the nervous energy of the first frame ebbed. Washington got on the board as D Rusty Anderson banged in a slapper from the blue line a little more than 6 minutes in, but that was the only tally of the period, and the Galaxy found themselves trailing 2-1 with only one period left to save their season.
Before the third, Reagle tried an unorthodox approach to motivate his men. The coach is well-known for his penchant for dressing in costume and making screwball jokes, but he played it straight. “You know who you are and you know what you need to do,” Reagle told his players. “Stop, take a breath, and remember: you got this.”
Unfortunately for the home team, Hershey struck again five minutes into the third period, as LW Russ Nahorniak tipped one in from the goal mouth to make it 3-1. “That was the real gut check for us,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello. “We looked up and down the bench and said, ‘All right, are we gonna roll over and give up, or are we going to get back in this?'”
Washington got their second wind and came out determined to catch up. Less than two minutes after Nahorniak’s goal, Galaxy LW Walt Camernitz struck back on a three-on-two breakaway on a power play, going top shelf to make it 3-2. But it was the latter half of the third period that really turned into a nightmare for Hershey.
With seven and a half minutes left in the game, Galaxy D Bill Corbett fired a low liner from the blue line. The puck took a couple of strange bounces and eluded Clarkson for a curious tying goal. Four minutes later, the Bliss surrendered another odd-man rush, with C J.C. Marais deking past a helpless Clarkson and putting the home team ahead for the first time. The arena seemed to shake to its foundations as the crowd roared while a stunned Hershey squad tried to get itself back together. But with a minute and a half left, the Galaxy got some much-needed insurance, with D Kevin Buchanan banking one home off the left post to make it 5-3, which was the ultimate final score.
After the game, the Bliss were left shell-shocked, having surrendered four unanswered goals to blow a seemingly solid lead. There was a lot about this game that was tough for Hershey to swallow. The Love Line was held without a single point in the game. Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber suggested that the trio was exhausted by a long season. “They’ve carried so much of the load for us for so long,” mused Barber. “I just think there wasn’t enough left in the tank.” And Clarkson, Hershey’s big deadline pickup, wilted in the clutch when his team needed him most. Clarkson was not available for comment after the game.
Barber summed things up for his team by saying, “To come this far this year and then have a game like this, it’s like biting into a nice Fifth Avenue bar and finding a big rock in the middle.”
In the Washington locker room, the mood was entirely different. Reagle blasted “Joy to the World” from his office as the players danced and sprayed each other with beer. “Man, what a crazy ending!” shouted Costello. “Last year was easier, but this was way more fun.”
The Galaxy also extended praise to their defeated foe. “Big tip of the lid to Hershey,” said McNeely. “They gave us a real run, and with a couple of bounces, this could easily have gone their way. They’re a hell of a team, and I expect them to come back strong next year.”
As for the Finals matchup with Western champion Michigan? “Bring it on,” said McNeely. “We can handle anything they want to throw at us. We’re ready.”