Just like last season, the SHL’s Eastern division appears to be anyone’s for the taking, at least through the first two weeks. The top four teams in the division are separated by just three points. Each of the potential contenders has a surprising strength, but also a weakness that might undermine their hopes of victory.
“If anyone tells you they know who’s gonna win the East,” said Hershey Bliss C Justin Valentine, “they’re either lying or drunk.”
Valentine and the Bliss are the current leaders in the East with a 6-3-1 record. Thus far, they’ve thrived with impressive defense. They’ve recorded the fewest shots allowed in the league, less even than famously stingy Michigan. Hershey coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber praised his team’s eagerness to block shots and win the board battles. “Our guys are willing to do the unglamorous work that wins games,” said Barber. “You can’t make chocolate without grinding up a few beans, and our guys have been grinding.”
The Bliss have needed that lockdown defense, because their goaltending has been lackluster. Free-agent signee Brandon Colt has posted a 3.09 GAA and an .897 save percentage. “I know I’ve got to step it up,” said Colt. “We’ve got a championship-caliber team here, and I need to get up to that level.”
The Bliss are also hamstrung by a pedestrian offense, as they continue to search for scoring beyond the “Love Line” of Valentine, LW Lance Sweet, and RW Christopher Hart. Second-line LW Russ Nahorniak has six goals, but no one other than he and the Love Line has scored more than two. The defense has been a particular black hole offensively; star Reese Milton has 12 points, but the other five have only combined for 8 points. “We’ve been taking care of business in our own end,” said second-pairing blueliner Vitaly Dyomin, “but we need to be stronger both ways.”
The surprising second-place squad is the Hamilton Pistols, who have won their last four in a row to rise to 6-4-0. The key to the Pistols’ surprising success has been their dominant top line; they are the runaway leaders in plus-minus rating, and four of them (LW Steven Alexander, C Calvin Frye, RW Claude Lafayette, and D Raymond Smyth) are among the league’s top 10 in points. “All the smart folks thought we were still a couple seasons away,” said coach Keith Shields. “But our first line is hotter than a firecracker, and it looks to me like we’re ready now.”
Aside from that top line, though, Hamilton is a young team that’s lacking in depth. The team’s third line has been a particular black hole. Shields has juggled players in and out to no apparent effect; they’ve combined for only two goals and a -6 rating. “We’re just getting wiped out when we’re on the ice,” said C Jens Bunyakin, who has a lone assist to his credit two weeks in. “That’s not good enough.”
If the Pistols are going to contend, they’ll also need to rely on rookie Lasse Koskinen in the crease. The Finnish prospect comes highly touted, but he’s shown his inexperience in his SHL debut (compiling a 4-3-0 record and a 3.26 GAA). He has come up strong in his last couple of starts, though, stopping 32 in a 3-2 win over Saskatchewan and 35 in a 5-1 beatdown of Washington.
Sitting a point behind Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres. As expected from a Martin Delorme team, the Tigres are making their name with defense and goaltending. Second-year netminder Riki Tiktuunen has been one of the league’s best so far, going 5-2-1 with a 1.73 GAA and a .949 save percentage. He’s been backed by a trapping, slow-down-oriented defense that makes Quebec’s games an exercise in patience at times. “I don’t care if people think us boring,” said Delorme. “Boring hockey can be winning hockey, and I am all about winning.”
What may keep the Tigres from winning, however, is their completely anemic offense. Quebec has scored only 22 goals this year, last in the league; more disturbingly, they’ve managed only 237 shots, 75 fewer than the next-worst team, Seattle. The Tigres had expected to draft top-prospect winger Rod “Money” Argent to address their lack of firepower, but were knocked for a loop after Seattle drafted Argent instead. Their already-struggling attack took a further hit when RW Flint “Steel” Robinson went down with an injury.
Quebec’s one-dimensional and unattractive style of play has made them less than popular with other teams. “I think we’re all agreed that we don’t care who wins as long as it’s not Quebec,” said Valentine. “The other teams are trying to win with talent. They’re trying to win by beating and bloodying the other team and hobbling their talent. It’s not cheating, but it’s close.”
Sitting in fourth, a point back of Quebec at 5-5-0, is the two-time defending champion Washington Galaxy. The good news for the champs is that they’re getting a career season out of goalie Roger Orion, who’s posted a 1.99 GAA and a .933 save percentage. The Galaxy’s defense has also been strong, allowing only 336 shots, virtually tied with Quebec.
But Washington’s offense has kept the team mired in mediocrity. Part of that has been attributable to bad luck; they’ve converted on only 7.5% of their shots, one of the worst marks in the league. Anecdotally, Galaxy players say they’ve noticed an unusually high percentage of shanked shots and pucks pinging off of goalposts this season. However, their usually-stout power play has disappointed them as well; they’ve scored on only 18.4% of their shots, good for only sixth in the league.
“I don’t need to do a deep dive on the numbers to see where our problem is,” said Washington coach Rodney Reagle. “The numbers say we’ve been meh. Our record says we’ve been meh. Watching us play, I’ve seen a lot of meh.”
It was shortly after this point last season that the Galaxy caught fire and took control of the East, holding it the rest of the way and fending off a late challenge from Hershey to claim the crown. Can Washington repeat the feat in 2017? Or will Hershey wreak their revenge? Or will Hamilton or Quebec play Cinderella and steal the title from the favorites?
“I’m not making any predictions two weeks in,” said Reagle. “As Shakespeare once said, that’s why they play the games. I think that was in Romeo and Juliet.”