The Continental Hockey League, the SHL’s junior circuit, also ended its regular season this week, and their playoff field is now set. Like the SHL, the CHL’s playoff field features a pair of returning postseason combatants as well as two new faces. Just like season, the division playoffs will be best-of-five, with the victors meeting in a seven-game series for the league title. Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:
The Virginia Rhinos captured the division title for the second straight year, despite losing a couple of key contributors from last year – G Shawn Stickel and RW Colton Jabril – to their parent club in Saskatchewan. Just like last season, the Rhinos have thrived on fast-paced, high-scoring hockey; the led the league with 224 goals. Their offense was driven by Ds Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett, the CHL’s highest-scoring blueliners (with 33 and 31 goals, respectively). Netminder Gus Parrish made the playoffs last year with Omaha; he signed as a free agent with Virginia this offseason and turned in another solid campaign, going 24-13-2 with a 2.48 GAA. In addition to their potent offense and solid goaltending (as well as a league-best 88.4% penalty kill), the Rhinos bring a big chip on their shoulder and a fierce desire to claim the title that eluded them last season. “We’re just the right amount of crazy to win this thing,” said coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh. “Not, like, underpants-on-your-head crazy. Just hockey crazy. Crazy enough to be dangerous.”
The Oshawa Drive were not expected to make much noise this season. They came off an underwhelming 2017 season where they finished last in their division, then saw the parent Hamilton Pistols call up several of their top players, such as LW Jamie Campbell, RW Michael Jennings, and D Buster Kratz. So how did they turn things around to clinch their first-ever playoff spot? They got strong seasons from players who washed out with the big club: LW Norris “Beaver” Young led the team with 72 points, and RW Jean-Michel Pireau put up a dozen goals and two dozen assists. And several of their returning players stepped their game up a notch, including RW Anders Pedersen (64 points, 17 more than last season), D Elvis Bodett (29 goals, nearly double last year’s total), and G Hector Orinoco (whose GAA went down by three-fifths of a goal, and save percentage went up by 14 points). Oshawa has developed a healthy dislike of the Rhinos, which should make for a hard-fought series. If it turns chippy, keep an eye on Drive coach Peter James. Several of their returning When these two clubs clashed early in the season, the normally mild-mannered James manhandled a Virginia defenseman who scrapped with the Oshawa bench. Will the coach go into bouncer mode again if the Rhinos act up? “I wouldn’t count on it,” James says.
The Minnesota Freeze came a long way in order to win the division. They executed a worst-to-first turnaround after a dismal 2017 campaign, and they soared in the second half, going 22-7-3 to erase a 12-point deficit in the standings. Their turnaround was sparked by a potent offense, led by LW Jean Pierre Fleury; he topped the CHL with 42 goals, nearly one-fifth of Minnesota’s total output. And while the Freeze’s defense was so-so, they got considerable help from their goaltending tandem of Curt Freeze (27-10-4, 2.27 GAA, .920 sv%) and Darren Lovelette (14-7-2, 2.71, .899). One potential X-factor: the Freeze were terrific on the road, posting a league-best 20-9-3 mark away from home, including a 12-3-1 mark during their second-half surge. “When you’ve had to deal with a winter as long and cold as ours,” said Freeze coach Patrick Chillingham, “it makes you tough. So a hostile crowd in a road barn isn’t going to rattle us.”
Although the Colorado Springs Zoomies are making their first trip to the postseason, the same group of players (more or less) made the playoffs last season as the Omaha Ashcats. The Zoomies are still smarting from last season’s upset loss to the eventual champion Utah Owls in four games in the Western playoff. They’ve got a couple factors working in their favor this time. Last year, Utah’s Sherman Carter was the league’s best netminder; this year, the Zoomies’ Sonny Kashiuk laid claim to that title, going 29-16-3 with a 2.03 GAA and a .925 save percentage. Colorado Springs also got an unexpected breakout season from RW Philippe Durien, who surprised everyone by finishing among the league’s top 5 goal scorers with 34. The Zoomies also led the league on the power play, converting 23.8% of their opportunities. On the downside, the Zoomies have cooled off considerably since their hot start, going a mere 15-15-2 in the second half, including a stretch shortly after the All-Star break when they lost 10 out of 13 games. Coach Artie Gambisch is confident that his team is ready for the postseason. “We’ve had our highs and lows this season, but the tough times have only made us stronger,” he said.