The first round of the Continental Hockey League playoffs is complete, and the final matchup is set. One of the teams that made it to the championship was expected, a team that established itself as a contender early on and never looked back. The other finalist is a surprise, a team that only emerged down the stretch and got hot at the right moment.
In the East, the Virginia Rhinos emerged from the pack early and never lost their lead. In their first-round series, they faced off against the Maine Moose in a matchup of contrasting styles. “Whoever dictates the pace of this series will win,” said Virginia RW Colton Jabril. The high-flying, high-scoring Rhinos came in hoping to skate past the trapping, hard-hitting Moose. As it turned out, though, the teams were in for a closely-fought series. Virginia took Game 1, but Maine managed to slow down the pace of play and make it a physical game that included a pair of fights. In Game 2, the Moose managed to dominate, outshooting the Rhinos 43-18 and winning it 3-2. In Game 3, as the series shifted to L.L. Bean Center, the Moose scored three in the first period and never looked back, as netminder Guillaume Levan stopped 36 shots and won 4-2 to put Maine within a game of advancing. Game 4 was a tense and tight matchup, as both goalies were at their sharpest. But Moose C Jacob Cunniff took a costly delay-of-game penalty midway through the third period, and Rhinos C Tanner Brooks cashed in on the ensuing power play with what proved to be the winning goal in a 2-1 contest. That set up a Game 5 for all the marbles back at Waterfront Center. The Rhinos scored a goal in each of the first two periods to get the fans excited, but the Moose scored a pair of goals in the first five minutes of the third to tie it up. Virginia needed a hero, and C Cyril Perignon was their man, stuffing home a rebound in the final two minutes for a 3-2 victory.
“This team really showed what it was made of in this series,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh. “Maine’s a tough competitor, and they didn’t let up on us. They did a good job neutralizing our speed, and we had to go in there and win it the hard way. And we did it!”
Out West, the Utah Owls came into their division series as a heavy underdog to the Omaha Ashcats. They were at or under the .500 mark for much of the season, and they finished 10 points behind Omaha. However, they had a couple things going for them. They were hot, having gone 13-3-4 over their final 20 games. And they had a secret weapon in net: top prospect Sherman Carter, who spent much of the season with the parent New York Night before rejoining the team in the final days. In Game 1, the Owls walked into the Switching Yard and stunned the favored Ashcats, scoring the first three goals of the game and rolling to a 5-2 win, with Carter making 39 saves. In Game 2, both teams failed to score in the first two periods. Utah shocked the home crowd by taking a 2-0 lead in the third, but Omaha scored a pair in the final three minutes to force overtime. The Ashcats and their fans assumed the tide was turning in the game and the series, but Owls D Jose Martinez scored the winning goal just over four minutes into overtime, pushing Omaha to the brink. The Ashcats stayed alive with a 2-1 win in Game 3, but it came at a cost: top-pairing D Victor Addison went down with an upper-body injury. Then in Game 4, Utah again put up three goals in the first period, and Carter stopped 37 shots to secure a 4-2 win and a 3-1 series victory.
“Anybody out there still doubting us?” said Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie. “We may not look like the best team out there, but we’ve already slayed one giant and we’re ready to slay another.”
The best-of-seven finals series kicks off on Saturday at Waterfront Center. “It’ll be a great series if you’re a fan of the color purple,” joked Marsh.