Favored Igloos, Underdog Bliss Prepare for Finals

On paper, the 2017 Vandenberg Cup Finals look like a mismatch.  The Anchorage Igloos finished the season 20 points ahead of the Hershey Bliss, and they outrank Hershey in virtually every statistical category.

The Bliss have a strong offense that put up 206 goals and 586 points, both good for third in the league.  But the Igloos were first in the league offensively, outscoring Hershey by 100 points.  Hershey’s “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart is undeniably impressive, with Sweet and Valentine both finishing among the top 10 point scorers.  But Anchorage’s top line of LW Jerry Koons, C Jake Frost, and RW Nicklas Ericsson all finished among the top 4 in the league in points.

Hershey’s defense was respectable, allowing 1953 shots, fifth in the SHL; Anchorage’s was better (1897 shots, second).  Between the pipes, the Igloos’ Ty Worthington (31-6-4, 1.78 GAA, .942 save percentage) outshone Bliss netminder Brandon Colt (24-16-4, 2.94, .909).  The only category in which Hershey is clearly superior is their league-best power play (21.9%).

But the Finals aren’t played on paper, and Hershey is plenty confident heading into the series.  “I’m already tired of all the sweep talk,” said Valentine.  “Nobody seems to think we can win this.  But nobody seemed to think we could beat Washington and win the division, either.  Nobody seemed to think we’d ever get over blowing it last year.  Believe me, we’re making note of everyone who’s writing us off and taking it all in.”

Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber echoed Valentine’s defiant tone.  “The so-called ‘experts’ seem to think we’re just going to roll over and play dead,” Barber told reporters.  “That kind of talk just fuels us, like a chocolate bar in the middle of the afternoon.  We look at this as a chance to prove ourselves on the biggest stage.  Don’t be surprised if the Vandy’s filled up with chocolate by the time this is over.”

For their part, the Igloos don’t appear to be taking this matchup lightly.  “You can throw out what happened in the regular season,” said Anchorage coach Sam Castor.  “It’s back to 0-0 now.  We haven’t won anything yet.  We know we’re going to need to stay sharp and play our best if we’re going to win thing.  No one in this locker room is taking anything for granted.”

Added Frost: “This is going to be a tough series.  We’re going to really have to be on our toes.  But we’ve been really strong this year, and I think we’re ready.”

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SHL Player of the Week – Week 12

Jake Frost

The SHL selected Anchorage Igloos C Jake Frost as its Player of the Week.  Frost finished the season with a bang, scoring 12 points (7 goals, 5 assists), a total made all the more impressive by the fact that he played in only four of the Igloos’ five games this week.  His most impressive day came on Tuesday, when he scored four goals and added four assists in Anchorage’s division-clinching 9-1 stomping of Saskatchewan.

Frost’s final-week burst of scoring allowed him to finish with a league-leading 47 goals.  His 80 points was good for fourth in the league, trailing Igloos teammates Jerry Koons and Nicklas Ericsson and Hamilton’s Calvin Frye.  Frost led Anchorage to its second Congress Trophy as the Igloos racked up 90 points, the most in SHL history.

“Jake is a really remarkable player,” said Koons.  “He’s an elite scorer, but he’s totally unselfish.  He’s willingly taken a step back to allow guys like me and Nicky and Collie [Les Collins] to grow to our fullest potential.  But make no mistake, at the end of the day it’s still Jake’s team.”

Igloos Win West In Blowout

The Anchorage Igloos were the first team to win the Vandenberg Trophy back in 2015.  They’ll now have a chance to win it for the second time in three seasons after outlasting the Michigan Gray Wolves to claim the SHL’s Western Division title.

“Going up against a team like Michigan, that’s really getting forged in the fire,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “You have to be a special and very strong team to survive that kind of test.  We not only survived, we passed with flying colors.  Our guys really earned their stripes.”

Sam Castor

Anchorage came into the final week of the season with a six-point lead over Michigan.  “Just take care of your own business,” Castor told his players, “and we’ll get this done.  We don’t have to worry about what they do.”

Following the plan, the Igloos swept their way through the weekend, knocking off Quebec 4-2 on Saturday and downing Seattle 3-1 on Sunday. The Wolves matched the Igloos stride-for-stride, winning both of their weekend contests.  Anchorage came into Tuesday’s game against Saskatchewan needing only a win or a Michigan loss to clinch the title.

Jake Frost

The Igloos took care of business in decisive fashion, drubbing the Shockers 9-1 to finish their quest with a bang.  The impressive victory was even more so given the performance of their top line.  C Jake Frost scored four goals and added four assists, while LW Jerry Koons put up a hat trick to go with three assists.  RW Nicklas Ericsson contributed five assists along with a goal of his own.

“We were just out there fast and loose and having a great time, just like playing shinny on the pond back home,” said Frost.  “The fans were rocking the house, and we were right there with there, riding that wave of pure joy.”

After the victory, the Igloos went up into the stands to celebrate with their fans, sharing hugs and high-fives and giving some rooters the selfie of a lifetime.  “There was one lady who was so excited that she just kept shrieking,” said Koons.  “She just kept screaming in my ear, ‘It’s you!  Oh my God, I’m here with you!’  So I might be half-deaf for a few days, but it was worth it.”  The Igloos signed their jerseys and gave them to the fans, and tossed a few signed pucks into the crowd as well.

In the locker room, the Igloos doused each other with champagne and took a moment to reflect after a hard-fought campaign and prepare themselves for what’s next.  “It feels great tonight,” said Frost.  “But after we clean up and wash the champagne out of our hair, it’ll be time to focus on the Finals.  Hershey’s a tough team, and I know they’ll give us a good fight.”

Ron Wright

Wolves coach Ron Wright tipped his cap to his rivals.  “All credit to the Igloos,” said Wright.  “They’re a really damn good club, and they earned this.  It was a battle well fought.”

Still, Wright couldn’t help pointing out that the trajectory of the race changed when Michigan C Hunter Bailes, one of the team’s top scorers, suffered an upper-body injury that caused him to miss a quarter of the season.  “Would things be different if we hadn’t lost Hunter for as long as we did?” said Wright.  “Hard to say.  But injuries are a part of the game, and that’s how it goes sometimes.  We’ll be ready to come back next year and try to take the title back.”

Next year, the race won’t be quite so pre.  With the league expanding to 12 teams, the SHL will be instituting four-team playoffs next season.  Barring a major change in the balance of power during the offseason, the Igloos and Wolves will be the overwhelming favorites to face each other in the division round next season.  Will that dim the fires of competition between the clubs?  “I don’t think so,” said Frost.  “We’re both hyper-competitive teams, and we don’t like each other that much.  And there’s the blood feud between Petey and Wally.  The war will still be fierce.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 11

Jerry Koons

The SHL selected Anchorage Igloos LW Jerry Koons as its Player of  the Week.  It’s the second time this season Koons has received the honor; he was also chosen back in Week 5.  Koons wasn’t able to repeat his 14-point performance from that week, but he did put up 9 points (4 goals, 5 assists) and led the Igloos to an undefeated week that puts them in position to claim the Western division title.  With his strong week, Koons is now tied with teammate Jake Frost for the league lead in goals with 40, and now holds the overall SHL lead in points with 82.

On Saturday, Koons had a goal and an assist as Anchorage swamped Saskatchewan 5-2.  On Tuesday, he scored twice and added an assist in a 6-0 rout of Dakota.  And on Friday, Koons put up a goal and two assists in a 5-4 win over Seattle.

“I’m pulling for Koonsy to win the [goal] title, honestly,” said Frost.  “Everyone knows my name, and they think this is my team.  But Jerry’s as important to us as I am.  More, even.  If we win the Vandy again this year, it’s going to be because Koonsy and me and Nicky and everybody gets this done.”

Change of the Guard Seems Imminent in SHL’s Last Week

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.”