This week was the culmination of a three-year jersey for the Hershey Bliss. Along the way, they have endured injury, heartbreak, self-doubt, frustration, and accusations that they couldn’t win the big one. “Yeah, we’ve got a couple monkeys on our back,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber. “Heck, we’ve probably got the whole zoo back there at this point.”
The monkeys finally dropped off this week, as the Bliss outlasted the Washington Galaxy to claim their first-ever Eastern Division title and trip to the SHL Finals.
“I couldn’t be more excited about this,” said Barber. “We’ve worked so hard and come so far. For three years, we’ve had our faces pressed against the window of the candy store, but we haven’t been able to get in. Now, we’ve finally unlocked the door, and now we can dig in and enjoy all the sweet, glorious chocolate bars we can eat.”
Hershey came into the season’s final week all but assured of clinching the division, leading second-place Washington by eight points with five games remaining. After pounding New York 7-3 on Saturday, the Bliss moved to the brink, needing only one more point to clinch. On Sunday, facing a Michigan team desperate to remain alive in its own division race, the Bliss nearly put up a shutout. But Wolves LW Jorma Seppa tied the game with 1:17 left, and then D Max Madison potted the game-winner with 47 seconds left in overtime to hand Hershey a 2-1 loss. Meanwhile, the Galaxy bulldozed New York 6-1 to avoid elimination.
On paper, nothing had changed: the Bliss were still one point away from nirvana. But suddenly, it was all too easy to picture a nightmare scenario. If the Bliss dropped their next two games and the Galaxy won both of theirs, that would set up a showdown between the teams on Friday for all the marbles. And that would bring back memories of last season, when Hershey gave up four goals in the third period and cost themselves the division.
“We didn’t think history would repeat itself, but it was definitely on our minds,” admitted C Justin Valentine.
The easiest way to keep the nightmare at bay was to beat Quebec on Tuesday at Chocolate Center. Though Quebec has struggled this season, it was no sure win: netminder Riki Tiktuunen is capable of putting up a shutout at any time. But the Bliss came in determined, and it was they who earned the shutout, beating the Tigres 4-0. D Reese Milton scored a pair of goals, and Valentine and C Spencer Kilpatrick each added one. Meanwhile, their defense limited Quebec to only 14 shots.
The Bliss celebrated their win by soaking each other with Hershey’s Syrup. “I think I’m going to need someone to soak me with champagne or beer just to get this out of my hair,” said LW Lance Sweet. In the middle of the celebration, Barber made a brief but emotional speech to his team. “Everybody doubted us,” said Barber. “They called us chokers, called us weak, said we couldn’t win the big one. Well, we just won it! Everyone in here is a winner!”
Now Hershey prepares to head to the Finals, where they will be a significant underdog against the Anchorage Igloos. “None of that scares us,” said Valentine. “We’re used to being doubted and underestimated. But they were wrong about us before, and they’ll be wrong about us again. We’ve got the Love Line, and a great defense, and we’ve got two great goalies. Bring it on, Anchorage!”