Pistols, Tigres Make Playoff Debut

There was a changing of the guard in the East this season.  The two previous division champions, the Washington Galaxy and the Hershey Bliss, finished fourth and fifth this season, respectively.  The teams that will be doing battle instead are both new to postseason play; in fact, neither of them had even finished with a winning record before.  Not only that, the Quebec Tigres and Hamilton Pistols are the first non-American teams to make the playoffs.

“I’ll bet if you’d asked a thousand people before the season started, not one of them would have picked the two of us to get this far,” said Tigres LW Walt Camernitz.

Quebec and Hamilton both finished the season with 81 points (the Tigres will have home-ice advantage in this series because they recorded more wins).  But in how they got there, and what strengths they bring to this matchup, the teams couldn’t be more different.

Steven Alexander

The Pistols thrived this season on a high-powered, fast-paced offense.  For the first half of the season, they led the league in goals (they wound up with 210, which was good for third).  They had two of the league’s top five goal scorers (LW Steven Alexander with 56 and C Calvin Frye with 40), while RW Claude Lafayette tied for the lead in assists with 73.  “We’re a team that thrives on speed, obviously,” said coach Keith Shields.  “I tell my guys, just put the puck on net and good things will happen.”

Martin Delorme

The Tigres, meanwhile, are happiest when they’re able to slow the game down and frustrate their opponents’ rhythm and momentum.  Coach Martin Delorme coached the Michigan Gray Wolves before returning to his home province, and he modeled his Quebec squad in the Wolves’ image.  “Our ideal game is a 1-0 victory,” said Delorme.  “If you can deny the opponent shots, you deny them the chance for goals.  And if you can deny entry to the zone, you deny the chance for shots.”

Quebec’s defense held opponents to just under 27 shots per game, second only to the Wolves.  The Tigres’ defense isn’t studded with big names (their top blueliner is arguably rookie Laurie Workman), but they bring a dogged determination and an all-for-one-and-one-for-all work ethic to every game.

One thing both teams have in common is a Finnish-born rising star between the pipes.  The Tigres are relying on 23-year-old Riki Tiktuunen, the stalwart who has established himself among the league’s elite in his third season in the SHL.  His .930 save percentage is second only to Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist, while his 2.03 GAA is the fourth-best mark in the league.  “The best think about Riki is that he doesn’t get rattled,” said Camernitz.  “We could be up by 10 or down by 10, and you couldn’t tell the difference by looking at him.  I don’t know if he’s a Zen guy or what, but he’s so calm it’s almost scary.”

The Pistols, meanwhile, have 21-year-old Lasse Koskinen.  Last season, Koskinen nearly won Rookie of the Year honors after a highly impressive debut campaign.  This year, he took his game up to the next level, going 28-20-4 with a 2.46 GAA and a .921 save percentage.  “I honestly think Koski’s going to be the best goalie in the league someday,” said Shields.  Unlike Tiktuunen, Koskinen is much more demonstrative with his emotion, freely showing his joy after big wins and his frustration after tough losses.  “We like having a goalie who’s a human being, not a robot,” said Alexander.

If momentum is a factor in this series, the advantage goes to Quebec.  Hamilton went 3-10-0 over their last 13 games of the season, while Quebec won three games in the last week of the season alone, including a 3-0 win over the Pistols on the last day of the regular season to claim the division title.  Shields doesn’t think that his team’s recent slump will be a factor, however.  “That’s the beautiful thing about the playoffs; the slate gets wiped clean,” the Pistols coach said.  “All that matters is the next five games.”

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Tigres Stun Pistols to Steal East Title

For much of the season, the East’s playoff picture has seemed fairly stable.  The Hamilton Pistols seemed likely to finish atop the division, while the Quebec Tigres and Washington Galaxy would battle it out for second place.  Then the Galaxy collapsed after the All-Star break, and a Pistols-Tigres playoff looked likely, with Hamilton still on track to finish first.  Even when the Tigres went on an 8-1-1 stretch to close within 4 points of the Pistols, that margin persisted for weeks, as both team stumbled down the stretch.

But as the season entered its final week, a strange thing happened: Hamilton continued to struggle, while Quebec starting winning.  That set up a showdown on the last day of the season at Centre Citadelle: If the Pistols won, they’d hold on to the top spot.  If Quebec won, they’d tie Hamilton in the points column but would win the division based on having more total wins.

Steven Alexander

“We’ve come so far this season,” said Pistols LW Steven Alexander.  “Now we’ve got to go out there and finish the job.”

Unfortunately for Alexander’s club, they ran into a stone wall in the form of Quebec goalie Riki Tiktuunen, who stopped all 30 Hamilton shots.  The game remained scoreless until Tigres LW Rupert MacDiarmid went five-hole three and a half minutes into the second period.  Quebec took advantage of a 5-on-3 power play in the third period, scoring twice to secure a 3-0 victory.  The orange-clad throngs roared their approval as the Tigres traded high-fives and waved their sticks in appreciation.

Martin Delorme

“This is a tribute to this wonderful team,” said Tigres coach Martin Delorme, who joins his team in making his first trip to the postseason.  “They have been doubted and dismissed many times, but they have ignored the critics and worked hard and won.  I am sure the same doubters will believe that they cannot win the Vandy, but we are prepared to keep working hard and win it.”

As for the Pistols, who were on top of the world last week after punching their first-ever playoff ticket, they’re now faced with the cold reality of losing home-ice advantage in the upcoming series after losing 10 of their last 13 games.

“Obviously, we haven’t finished up the regular season the way we wanted to,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “But we’re going to put that behind us.  It’s not like we forgot how to score, or that the talent that got us this far suddenly dried up.  We just have to keep playing our game, keep believing in ourselves, and we’ll get ourselves back on track.”

Continue reading “Tigres Stun Pistols to Steal East Title”

Pistols Clinch First-Ever Playoff Berth, Celebrate in Style

From the beginning of this season, the Hamilton Pistols have made it clear that they’re a force to be reckoned with.  They’ve led the Eastern Division wire-to-wire, and they haven’t faded as the season has gone on.

Keith Shields

But whenever a reporter has asked Pistols coach Keith Shields a question about the postseason, he as always balked.  “We haven’t clinched anything yet, and I’m not about to assume,” was his refrain.

Shields can officially let go of his refrain now.  On Tuesday, the Pistols defeated the Kansas City Smoke 4-2 to clinch their first-ever trip to the postseason.

As soon as the clocked ticked down to 0:00 at Heartland Telecom Center, the Pistols raced to center ice and formed a pig pile.  They whooped and hollered as they flung their gloves and helmets in the air.  “If we’d been at home, we’d have gone up into the stands to celebrate with the fans,” said Pistols C Calvin Frye.  Instead, they spotted a couple of fans in Hamilton sweaters behind the bench and invited them on the ice to join the celebration.

After they finished their on-ice celebration, they adjourned to the locker room to continue the party.  Songs like “My Shot” and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” blasted over the stereo while the young Pistols showered each other with beer, champagne, barbecue sauce, and whatever else they could find.  They took turns making up impromptu raps to honor each other.  They smoked giant cigars.

“I know you’re supposed to be cool and act like you’ve been there before and save the big celebration for the Vandy,” said Shields.  “But you know what?  We’ve got a young bunch of guys, and they haven’t been here before.  It’s only your first time once, so why not enjoy it?  There’ll be plenty of time to be cool and mature later.”

Steven Alexander

The dynamic duo that powers the Pistols, LW Steven Alexander and RW Claude Lafayette, spent the evening hugging and toasting each other.  Alexander blinked back tears as he reflected on the journey that got him here.  “Claude is my brother,” Alexander said.  “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be playing hockey.  I might be dead in an alley somewhere.  But he got me here, and ever since then we’ve been working and dreaming for this moment.  Now we’re here, and we’re not throwing away our shot!”

Shields heaped praise on his team.  “Ever since the first couple of weeks, when we got off to such a good start, I’ve been warning them, ‘It’s not going to be this easy.  There’s a lot of good teams in the division, and they’ll make a run at us.  We can’t take anything for granted.’  And they haven’t!  They’ve worked hard and stayed strong.  I don’t think anyone’s going to want to face us.”

C Henry Constantine, who won the Vandy last season with Hershey and signed with the Pistols in the offseason, is impressed by this club.  “We had a good, talented club [in Hershey], but this team is scary,” he said.  “I don’t know how anybody keeps up with our top line, they’re so fast.  And we’ve got good depth, and more speed on the bottom line.  We’ve got a rough, hard-hitting bunch on defense.  This is a crew that can hang with clubs like Michigan and Anchorage and give them real trouble, now and for years to come.”

Before they can vie for the Vandy, though, the Pistols will need to win the Eastern playoff.  Their likely opponent, the Quebec Tigres, will do their best to frustrate and slow down Hamilton’s speedy forward lines.  “Quebec’s a tough team, and they’ll push us hard,” said Shields.  “I’m certainly not going to look past them.”

But the challenges of the playoffs are tomorrow’s problem.  For today, the young Pistols are happy just to celebrate how far they’ve come.  “History has its eyes on us,” said Alexander.  “But when our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.  Let’s have another round tonight!”

SHL Playoff Field Nearly Set

With two weeks left in the SHL season, the playoff picture is coming into focus.  The expanded four-team field hasn’t been officially set quite yet, but it’s all but certain which teams will head to the postseason.

In the West, the matchup features a pair of old rivals and longtime powers.  The Michigan Gray Wolves officially punched their playoff ticket last week, which comes as no surprise; they’ve been the division all season by a wide margin. On Saturday, they clinched the division title with a 5-2 win over Boston.

“This is one step on our journey,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “What we’ve accomplished is a testament to the hard work we’ve put in this season.  Obviously, our goals are larger than this.  If we win the division but don’t win the Vandy, we won’t consider the season a true success.  But we don’t expect this to be an easy road; we know we’ll have to fight for it.”

Meanwhile, the Anchorage Igloos have not been performing up to their usual high standards for much of the season, but they’ve gotten hot down the stretch, going 12-3-1 in their last 16 games.  The Igloos are now on the brink of clinching a playoff spot, and prepare to face Michigan for a chance to go to make their third trip to the SHL Finals in four seasons.

“They say it’s important to peak at the right time,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “Well, we believe we’re right where we need to be.  We’re playing our best hockey of the year going into the playoffs, and that’s perfect.  Michigan better not take us for granted.”

Meanwhile, the Eastern playoff is set to feature a pair of rising powers and playoff newcomers with very different styles.  The Hamilton Pistols were widely considered to be a strong contender in the making, but most observers figured that they were still a year or two away.  But with the defending champions Hershey Bliss stumbling out of the gate and the two-time division winner Washington Galaxy falling apart down the stretch, the Pistols are set to punch their first-ever playoff ticket.

Hamilton’s success has been built on a fast pace and a highly efficient offense, with LW Steven Alexander leading the way.  Second-year netminder Lasse Koskinen, nicknamed the “human goal eraser,” has taken care of business in the defensive end.

“We’ve got a frisky bunch of young pups here,” said Hamilton coach Keith Shields.  “We’ve got the talent and the desire to go all the way.  We’ll see what happens come playoff time, but I’m thrilled to pieces with how far we’ve come already.  I couldn’t be prouder of my boys.”

Meanwhile, the Quebec Tigres are also close to making their first-ever trip to the postseason.  Unlike the Pistols, who try to turn every game into a track meet, the Tigres succeed by slowing the pace, using their stout defense and goalie Riki Tiktuunen to keep opposing attacks muzzled.  The acquisition of free-agent LW Walt Camernitz has proved huge, as he has helped propel Quebec’s offense from awful to adequate, which has been enough to lift the Tigres from the basement to the penthouse.

When coach Martin Delorme left a powerhouse Michigan squad to coach his hometown team, some thought he’d made a huge mistake.  It’s been a sweet redemption for him, as three years of effort are starting to bear fruit.  “For those who thought I could never make the playoffs with this team,” the coach told reporters, “where are you now?  This season, the critics have suddenly lost their voices.”

What remains to be seen is which of the Canadian teams will have home-ice advantage in their matchup.  Hamilton has been out in front throughout the season, but they’ve cooled a bit lately, and Quebec has crept within 4 points of them.

“I don’t know if we’ll finish on top or if they’ll beat us out,” said Alexander.  “But I don’t think it really matters.  We’re both damn good teams, and I think it’ll come down to who can set the pace and dictate the game.  Should be a hell of a series.”

Pistols Add Soforenko, Dyomin for Stretch Run

It was an active trading deadline this season, with almost all contending teams making moves to strengthen their position.  The first-place team in the East, the Hamilton Pistols, made the first move several days before the deadline, acquiring LW Piotr Soforenko and D Vitaly Dyomin from the Kansas City Smoke on Sunday to bolster their depth.

Piotr Soforenko

The Pistols have been leaning heavily on rookies on their third line (LW Jamie Campbell and RW Michael Jennings) and bottom defensive pairing (Albie Glasco and Buster Kratz).  GM Marcel LaClaire had already been contemplating a move to add a couple of veterans, but when Glasco went down with an injury on Friday and Campbell was hurt on Saturday, the matter became a priority.

“We’re getting to a critical point in the season, where we cannot afford to lose our ground,” LaClaire told reporters.  “With Piotr and Vitaly, we have a pair of proven, reliable players who can give us some additional grit and solidity, and they can fill holes that we have right away.”

The 32-year-old Soforenko has been one of Kansas City’s leading scorers this season, with 12 goals and 20 assists.  He is a graceful skater and smooth passer, and he has worked well with the Smoke’s rookies; he has helped linemates C Darien Picard and RW Zachary Merula compile strong debut seasons.  On the other hand, he is not a rugged player and is considered below average on defense.

Vitaly Dyomin

The 29-year-old Dyomin is a stay-home defenseman who has a reputation as a grinder.  He has put up respectable offensive numbers with KC (3 goals, 11 assists), but his primary contributions are through checking and wall work.  He is not particularly fast, but he makes up for it with hard hits.  Unlike Soforenko, who is a pure rental, Dyomin is signed through next season; this made him an appealing pickup for Hamilton.

In the short term, Soforenko and Dyomin will fill in for the injured Campbell and Glasco; once the latter two return to health, it is expected that the new players will take over for Jennings and Kratz.

Last week, LaClaire publicly agonized over whether to part with some of the team’s top prospects to take a shot at winning now.  In this deal, they dealt a pair of youngsters with promise, but held onto their most highly-regarded players.

Gary Hermine
Owen Griffin

C Owen Griffin was one of the last cuts in training camp, and he has put up solid numbers with their minor-league affiliate in Oshawa (13 goals, 16 assists).  The 21-year-old reported to the Smoke’s affiliate in Omaha in the immediate aftermath of the trade, but he is likely to see time with the big club before season’s end.

D Gary Hermine is well-regarded as an offensive-minded defenseman; the 20-year-old has thrived with Oshawa, putting up 12 goals and 35 assists in 38 games this season.  He reported directly to Kansas City, where he joined their bottom pairing and is expected to see time on the power play.

“I’m excited to have Owen and Gary join our team,” said Smoke GM Garth Melvin.  “As an expansion club, our eyes are firmly fixed on the future, and we’ve got a couple of young guys who we believe can be a key part of our club for years to come.”

LaClaire stated that he does not expect the Pistols to make any more deals before the deadline.  “We have the players we want,” he told reporters.  “And we believe we have struck the balance, taking our shot now and still being strong for the future.”

Hamilton Faces Tough Calls As Deadline Approaches

As the SHL season winds toward next week’s trading deadline, the Hamilton Pistols find themselves in an admirable position.  They’ve been on top of the Eastern Division all season, and they’re virtually certain to make the playoffs.  They’ve even got a decent chance to go all the way and win the Vandy.

That all sounds pretty good.  So why is Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire saying that his team is in a “painful position”?  When LaClaire says that “we have some difficult decisions to make over the next week,” what does he mean?

The awkward truth is that Hamilton arrived to contention ahead of schedule.  Coming off a 29-30-1 finish in 2017, the Pistols organization looked at this as a building season: get over .500 for the first time, possibly contend for a playoff spot, and give their young core a chance to get its feet wet in meaningful games.  But after the Hershey Bliss bellyflopped out of the gate, there was an unexpected vacancy at the top of the stands, and the Pistols have filled it.

But Hamilton’s unexpected ascendance has scrambled the calculus of their deadline decisions.  If they were a fringe contender, the Pistols might make a minor deal for a veteran or two to provide experience and depth, but they’d leave their store of prospects largely untouched.  But now that they have a realistic shot to go all the way, should they consider dealing some of those prospects and going all in this year?

That’s the quandary that’s keeping LaClaire up at night.  “I realize that this is a very lucky problem to have,” said the Pistols GM.  “How do spend your lottery winnings?  But this choice could affect our course for years to come.”

The case for going all in this year is simple: The league may never be this wide open again.  With Hershey effectively out of the picture, the East is Hamilton’s for the taking.  Both the Quebec Tigres and Washington Galaxy are having solid seasons, but both have obvious weaknesses: Quebec is limited by a so-so offense, while Washington’s success is heavily dependent on its top line.

Out West, the defending division champion Anchorage Igloos have been stuck around the .500 mark and don’t look likely to repeat.  The Michigan Gray Wolves are the consensus Vandy favorite, but even they have chinks in their armor; goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist hasn’t been his typical dominant self, and top D “Mad Max” Madison has battled injuries.

And if the Pistols are inclined to load up for a deep run, there’s no shortage of targets available.  The Dakota Jackalopes are shopping Cs Lars Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore, and may be willing to deal D Matt Cherner.  The expansion Boston Badgers and Kansas City Smoke are both entertaining offers on their veterans.  And other struggling teams like the Bliss, New York Night, and Saskatchewan Shockers may be willing to deal as well.

“Flags fly forever,” said Pistols LW Steven Alexander.  “We’ve got a real shot to win this thing, and I’m all for anything that helps us get there.”

On the other hand, the Pistols have made no secret of their desire to build a dynasty.  “We don’t think that we only have this one shot,” LaClaire said.  “We believe we have the talent to be a top team for many years.”  Their minor-league affiliate in Oshawa is currently leading its division, and they’ve got a number of highly-touted prospects.  If the Pistols were to trade those players away for veterans on short-term deals, they might maximize their chance to win this season but cost themselves a shot at building an affordable contender down the road.

“It is not an easy thing,” said LaClaire.  “I want us to be good for the next ten years.  But if this is our best chance for a title… I want the title.”

For his part, Hamilton coach Keith Shields retains his trademark optimistic outlook.  “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got a championship-caliber team in our locker room right now,” the coach said on Friday.  “We don’t need to make a single deal and we’re awesome.  If Marcel decides to go and get me a player who makes us even better, I love it!  I’m happy either way.”

Easy for him to say.  But for LaClaire – the man who has to find a way to balance the present and the future – the decisions are anything but easy.  “I’ll be happy when [the deadline] is over,” he said.  “After that, we just have to go settle it on the ice.”