CHL Update: Playoff Picture Clicks Into Place

The SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League, wrapped up its regular season this week.  Both divisions weren’t resolved until the final week, with the wide-open, topsy-turvy East going down to the very last day.  As usual, the division series will be best-of-five, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven Finals with the Howard Trophy at stake.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

Eastern Division

The defending champion Virginia Rhinos battled through a bumpy season.  Several of their key contributors from last season departed; Ds Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett were called up by the parent Saskatchewan Shockers, while starting goalie Gus Parrish departed in free agency. The Rhinos suffered another blow when C Tanner Brooks, who was in the midst of a breakout season, was moved in a deadline trade.  But the Rhinos held on in the closely contested East (only seven points separated first place from last) and won their third straight division title.  As befits their just-above-.500 record, the Rhinos were in the middle of the pack this year on offense and GAA.  The secret to their success has been special team; both their power play (20.9% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.1%) were second-best in the league.  Virginia also did a good job staying out of the penalty boxes; their 585 PIMs were the CHL’s fewest.  Even though they just squeaked into the postseason, the Rhinos are eager to defend their title and confident that their past experience will serve them well.  “We do not get scared in the big situations,” said LW Yuri Laronov, whose 29 goals led the team.  “This has all happened for us before.”

The Cleveland Centurions didn’t secure a spot in the postseason until the last day of the regular season, when they beat the Oshawa Drive 2-1 to leapfrog the Canadian club into second place.  Like their parent club, the Michigan Gray Wolves, the Centurions are built around defense and goaltending.  Cleveland allowed only 21.8 shots per game, the fewest in the league by far, and 19-year-old Eugene Looney (19-15-1, 1.84 GAA, .914 save percentage) had a breakout season in net.  They’ve also got some punch on offense, with a trio of 20-goal scorers in LW Fendrick Scanlan, C Phoenix Cage, and RW Steve Brandon.  And like the Rhinos, they excel on special teams; their 24.8% power-play percentage led the league, while their 84% penalty kill percentage was fourth.  In the end, though, Cleveland wins when they can bang bodies, control the neutral zone, and slow the pace of the game.  “We don’t play pretty hockey,” admitted D Burton Cullidge.  “But guess what?  Life ain’t pretty either.  Ugly and effective beats pretty and soft every time.”

 

Western Division

The Omaha Ashcats were the only CHL team to punch their playoff ticket last week, completing a worst-to-first turnaround that they celebrated memorably with their “World’s Smallest Playoff Parade.”  The Ashcats are a strong team at both ends of the ice; they had the third-most goals in the league and finished fourth in GAA.  They have one of the league’s best offensive defensemen in Brandon Lockwood (22 goals, 33 assists).  They don’t have any players on the offensive leaderboards, but they have a couple of quality scorers in RW Adriaen van der Veen (23 goals, 26 assists in 44 games) and LW Aaron Knorr (25 goals).  They have a pair of strong goalies in Bill Bates (22-8-2, 2.19 GAA, .920 save percentage) and rookie Jim Fleetwood (6-5-0, 2.16, .913).  Several of these players are likely to be called up to the parent Kansas City Smoke next season, so this season may have a bit of a last-dance quality for the squad.  “It’s been great for me watching this team grow up and grow together over the season,” said coach Butch Slazenger.  “Now I want to see us take the next step and go all the way to the title.”

Like the Ashcats, the Idaho Spuds sailed through most of the year in comfortable playoff position.  They cooled off a bit toward the end of the season, though, and ultimately had to withstand a late charge from the defending division champion Minnesota Freeze in order to clinch their postseason spot.  The Spuds’ success has been built on a potent offense.  They scored 233 goals this season, far and away the most in the league; their +65 plus-minus rating is by far the league’s best.  They have three of the CHL’s top 10 goal scorers (D Brady Prussian with 31 – tied for the league lead, C Dale Wilcox with 29, and LW Terry Cresson with 28) and three of the top 10 assist leaders (Wilcox with a league-leading 51, RW Dylan Alizarin with 47, and Cresson with 37).  Idaho’s firewagon style meant that they gave up a lot of shots (30.9 per game, second-most in the CHL), but they got strong work from netminders Kelvin White (20-16-4, 2.44, .917) and Xavier St. Pierre (12-9-1, 3.28, .901).  They’re especially dangerous on their own ice: their 22-7-3 mark at Treasure Valley Arena was the league’s best home record.  If there’s a big hole in their game, it’s the penalty kill; their 78.5% kill rate was second-worst in the league, and they took 699 penalty minutes, which is the third-highest.  They come into the postseason on a cold streak, having lost 7 of their last 11 games.  Like the Ashcats, there’s a good chance that several of these players will be toiling for the parent Dakota Jackalopes next season.  Coach Gilbert McCoyne believes that the Spuds’ high-powered offense will be too much for Omaha to handle.  “We’re a well-oiled scoring machine,” said McCoyne.  “When we’re on, nothing can slow us down.  I think we’ll just run past [the Ashcats] and bury ‘em in an avalanche of goals.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s