Going into the final week of the 2017 SHL season, neither division race is terribly close, unlike the last couple of seasons. Barring a seismic shift in the coming week, we aren’t going to see anything as dramatic as the 2016’s Hershey-Washington last-game showdown for the division. Nonetheless, even if things unfold as expected, the results will still have their share of surprises. As it stands, neither of last year’s Finals opponents will make a return trip this season.
In the West, the Michigan Gray Wolves head into the season’s final week trailing the Anchorage Igloos by 6 points. The Wolves and Igloos have been the division powers since the league’s inception, so it’s no surprise that they will finish one-two yet again. But the Wolves have been unable to make up the ground they lost when top scorers Hunter Bailes and Warren Marlow went down with injuries in midseason. “We’ve fought hard all year, and I know we’re going to keep battling to the end,” said Wolves RW Gordon Lunsford. “But we’re in a difficult spot right now.”
Michigan’s best chance to narrow the gap came on Wednesday, when they faced the Igloos at Arctic Circle Arena. The game was a true heavyweight clash, as the Wolves stifled Anchorage’s league-best offense, with the Igloos responding in kind. After two scoreless periods, Michigan actually drew first blood seven minutes into the third, when Lunsford dented the twine on a hard slapshot between Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s legs. “That got us fired up,” said Lunsford. “We thought this was the goal that was going to set us on a run to take the division.”
But with just over a minute left in the game, the Igloos tied the game on a fluky goal by D Sebastian Pomfret, who flicked a rebound that bounced off the back of Michigan netminder Dirk Lundquist back and into the goal. That sent the game to overtime, where Wolves C Wesley Knight committed a tough holding-the-stick penalty. 15 seconds into the power play, Igloos LW Les Collins beat Lundquist stick-side to seal a 2-1 win.
“That was a back-breaker,” admitted Lunsford. “To go from thinking you’re on the road to the division to feeling like you’re on the brink of elimination… it’s a kick in the gut, no question.”
As surprising as the West race has been, things have been even more shocking in the East. The Washington Galaxy have won the division in each of the last two seasons and established themselves as the class of the division. When they caught fire out of the All-Star Break, winning 10 in a row and snatching first place away from the Hershey Bliss, it looked like they were set up to run to yet another title. It hasn’t unfolded that way, though, as the Bliss have grabbed the lead right back over the last couple of weeks.
And while Hershey has played well, the race in the East has been a story of Washington collapse. The Galaxy have dropped 11 of 15 over the last three weeks, and they head into the final week of the season 8 points back of the Bliss. For a team with a reputation for stepping it up in the second half, their dismal performance has been completely unexpected. “We can’t figure it out,” said LW Casey Thurman. “We know we can do better than this, but it’s kind of like we’re stepping on the gas and there’s nothing there.”
Certainly, the Galaxy’s using scoring punch has been absent during their recent skid. They’ve fallen from sixth in the league in goals scored to second-to-last, ahead of only Quebec. Several of their stars, including Thurman (2 goals in the last 15 games), C Eddie Costello (3 goals), RW Jefferson McNeely (3 goals), and C J.C. Marais (2 goals), have been in slumps. But the offense hasn’t been the only culprit. The normally stout defense, which allowed fewer than two and a half goals per game over the first two-thirds of the season, has allowed over three per game during their slide. Backup goalie Ron Mason has lost his last five starts. Their special units have flatlined over the last three weeks, with their power play dropping from a league-leading 24.1% success rate to a middle-of-the-pack 19.6%, and their penalty kill going from 82.9% efficiency to 78.8%. “It’s like it’s all falling apart at once,” said Costello.
For the Bliss, who have heard over and over that they’re too soft, too sloppy, or too star-dependent to beat the Galaxy, the turnabout has been pretty sweet. “We’ve taken a lot of crap over the years about how we can never win the big one, or how Washington’s got our number,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine. “We’ve never bought into that story, but we knew we were were going to keep hearing it until we proved it.” On Saturday, Hershey came into Constellation Center and walloped Washington 5-1. “That one definitely felt good,” said Valentine. “To be able to go into their building and shut them down like that… it gave us confidence that this isn’t going to be like the other years. It’s a new era for us.”