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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Bliss Clinch First-Ever Finals Trip

This week was the culmination of a three-year jersey for the Hershey Bliss.  Along the way, they have endured injury, heartbreak, self-doubt, frustration, and accusations that they couldn’t win the big one.  “Yeah, we’ve got a couple monkeys on our back,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber.  “Heck, we’ve probably got the whole zoo back there at this point.”

The monkeys finally dropped off this week, as the Bliss outlasted the Washington Galaxy to claim their first-ever Eastern Division title and trip to the SHL Finals.

“Chocolate Chip” Barber

“I couldn’t be more excited about this,” said Barber.  “We’ve worked so hard and come so far.  For three years, we’ve had our faces pressed against the window of the candy store, but we haven’t been able to get in.  Now, we’ve finally unlocked the door, and now we can dig in and enjoy all the sweet, glorious chocolate bars we can eat.”

Hershey came into the season’s final week all but assured of clinching the division, leading second-place Washington by eight points with five games remaining.  After pounding New York 7-3 on Saturday, the Bliss moved to the brink, needing only one more point to clinch.  On Sunday, facing a Michigan team desperate to remain alive in its own division race, the Bliss nearly put up a shutout.  But Wolves LW Jorma Seppa tied the game with 1:17 left, and then D Max Madison potted the game-winner with 47 seconds left in overtime to hand Hershey a 2-1 loss.  Meanwhile, the Galaxy bulldozed New York 6-1 to avoid elimination.

On paper, nothing had changed: the Bliss were still one point away from nirvana.  But suddenly, it was all too easy to picture a nightmare scenario.  If the Bliss dropped their next two games and the Galaxy won both of theirs, that would set up a showdown between the teams on Friday for all the marbles.  And that would bring back memories of last season, when Hershey gave up four goals in the third period and cost themselves the division.

Justin Valentine

“We didn’t think history would repeat itself, but it was definitely on our minds,” admitted C Justin Valentine.

The easiest way to keep the nightmare at bay was to beat Quebec on Tuesday at Chocolate Center.  Though Quebec has struggled this season, it was no sure win: netminder Riki Tiktuunen is capable of putting up a shutout at any time.  But the Bliss came in determined, and it was they who earned the shutout, beating the Tigres 4-0.  D Reese Milton scored a pair of goals, and Valentine and C Spencer Kilpatrick each added one.  Meanwhile, their defense limited Quebec to only 14 shots.

The Bliss celebrated their win by soaking each other with Hershey’s Syrup.  “I think I’m going to need someone to soak me with champagne or beer just to get this out of my hair,” said LW Lance Sweet.  In the middle of the celebration, Barber made a brief but emotional speech to his team.  “Everybody doubted us,” said Barber.  “They called us chokers, called us weak, said we couldn’t win the big one.  Well, we just won it!   Everyone in here is a winner!”

Now Hershey prepares to head to the Finals, where they will be a significant underdog against the Anchorage Igloos.  “None of that scares us,” said Valentine.  “We’re used to being doubted and underestimated.  But they were wrong about us before, and they’ll be wrong about us again.  We’ve got the Love Line, and a great defense, and we’ve got two great goalies.  Bring it on, Anchorage!”

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.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 10

Noah Daniels

The SHL selected Hershey Bliss RW Noah Daniels as its Player of the Week.  Daniels had a 10-point week (7 goals, 3 assists), a particularly remarkable feat for a player who came into the week having scored only 25 points on the season.  Thanks to Daniels’ hard work, the Bliss went 4-1-0 on the week and jumped back into first place in the East.

On Sunday, Daniels turned in his first career hat trick, contributing to Hershey’s 7-1 pummeling of Hamilton.  (More on that game here.)  On Tuesday, the winger scored two more goals and added three assists as the Bliss shredded Quebec 9-2.  And on Friday, Daniels scored two more to help Hershey tip New York 4-3.

“Noah’s a real fighter,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber.  “He may not be the biggest or most gifted player out there, but he’s out there working hard every shift and clawing for every opportunity.  He’s made himself a player, and he deserves all the recognition he can get.”

Bliss Bag Double Hat Trick, Crush Hamilton

Coming into the home stretch of the season and trailing the Washington Galaxy in the East, the Hershey Bliss were eager for a statement win to set up a strong run to the finish.  They got that win in the form of a 7-1 shellacking of the Hamilton Pistols.   The game was remarkable not only for the one-sided score, but for the fact that two Bliss players recorded hat tricks in the same game, an SHL first.

“Talk about an incredible day,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber.  “Two hat tricks at once?  That’s like finding a vending machine that sells king-size candy bars.”

Noah Daniels

Hershey took control of the game practically from the drop of the puck, scoring four goals in the first period.  Two of the goals were scored by RW Noah Daniels, while one was netted by RW Christopher Hart.  Seeing Hart, a member of Hershey’s famed “Love Line,” score was no surprise.  Daniels scoring twice, on the other hand, was rather remarkable.  The second-line winger, who is better known for his passing skills than his shot, came into the game having scored only 8 goals on the season.

“Noah’s an unselfish, pass-first guy,” said Barber.  “But he had a couple good looks, and he took advantage.”

Daniels got his hat trick two minutes into the second period, stuffing home a rebound past Pistols goalie Dennis Wampler.   The handful of Bliss fans at Gunpowder Armory tossed their hats onto the ice, and even some Hamilton fans applauded.  Daniels shyly waved at the crowd before skating to the bench, where he was greeted by his teammates squirting him with their water bottles.

“We don’t have a Gatorade container on the bench to dump on him, so we did the next best thing,” said Bliss C Henry Constantine.

Christopher Hart

Midway through the period, Hart scored his second goal on a slapper from the point, making it 6-0.  As that point, a buzz started to rise on the Bliss bench.  “The game was in the bag, so we needed something to get excited about,” said Constantine.  “When Harty got his second, we started looking up and down the bench with our eyebrows raised, thinking, ‘Maybe…?'”

C Jens Bunyakin finally got the Pistols on the board with a power-play goal a minute and a half into the third.  Five minutes later, Hart and linemate Justin Valentine broke out on an odd-man rush.  Valentine deked a shot, then flicked a pass to Hart, who buried a shot under Wampler’s catching glove to complete his hat trick.  The Bliss saluted his accomplishment by tossing their helmets on the ice.

“The fans had already thrown their hats,” said Valentine.  “We didn’t want Chris to feel left out.”

Hart skated over to the bench and received the same water-bottle shower that Daniels had received.  “It was really… wet,” Hart said later.

It was a great night for Hershey, and it seems to have ignited the Bliss; they haven’t lost a game since.  Might that be the statement win that propels a strong stretch run?  “I think it shows the kind of explosive offense we have as a team,” said Hart.  “If we win this thing, this is the game that we’re going to look back on.”

Interview of the Week: Lance Sweet

This week’s interview is with Hershey Bliss LW Lance Sweet.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with a man in the thick of a playoff race, a member of the Love Line, Hershey’s Lance Sweet.  Lance, thanks for speaking with us.

Lance Sweet

Lance Sweet: No problem.  Always glad to talk hockey!

SHLD: All right, let’s talk hockey!  Your Bliss have been out front in the East for the season, but lately you’ve fallen behind Washington.  What do you think you need to do to catch back up with the Galaxy?

LS: That’s definitely the question of the moment for us right now.  I think the key is going to be staying strong on both ends.  Especially defensively; lately, we’ve been playing in our own end too much.  We’ve got to be strong at denying entry and winning the puck battles in the neutral zone.

SHLD: Washington’s won the division title the last two seasons in a row. Does that put more pressure on you guys to get over the hump?

LS: I’d be lying if I said we didn’t think about it.  Definitely the way last year ended, that really hurt.  But the way we look at it, that gives us some extra fuel.  This is our chance to prove ourselves.  So I don’t think it’s pressure so much as inspiration.

SHLD: Washington certainly seems happy to fuel your rivalry.  What did you think of their “Hershey-pocalypse” bit?

LS: It definitely got us fired up, for sure.  I mean, it was a total waste of a lot of good chocolate.

SHLD: Do the Bliss plan to do anything to get back at them for it?

LS: As far as I’m concerned, the best revenge would be for us to beat them on the ice.

SHLD: Makes sense!  Let’s talk about the Love Line a bit.  To most SHL fans, when they think of the Bliss, they think you guys are the whole show.  A couple of years ago, when you got hurt and missed significant time, it sank your team’s season.  Is the Love Line still central to the team’s success?

LS: I don’t think so, and that’s a good thing.  The book on us used to be “Stop the Love Line, and you can stop Hershey.”  But now, if one of us went down – knock on wood – I think we’d be fine.  Maybe not Justin [Valentine], but if I got hurt, I think we’d be fine.  We’ve got so many other weapons: Kirks [Spencer Kirkpatrick], Horny [Russ Nahorniak], Connie [Henry Constantine], and more.  We’re a more balanced team, and we’re a stronger team.

SHLD: Since we’re talking about the Love Line, one last question: are you guys still as popular with the female fans as you were in the beginning?

LS: [laughs] Uhh… well, to be honest, yeah.  The ladies love us.  Of course, it’s a little different now, ’cause Justin’s engaged and I’ve got a girlfriend.  But Chris [Hart] is still single!  We send all the girls his way now.

SHLD: Can he handle that?

LS: I haven’t heard him complain.

SHLD: That’s good.  Well, thanks for a fun and interesting conversation, Lance!  Good luck the rest of the season.

LS: Thanks!  It’s been fun.

Bliss Acquire McLearen, Make Push for East

The SHL’s trading deadline occurred this week, which meant that the league’s contenders were all looking for ways to shore up their squads for that playoff push down the stretch.  By all accounts, no team was more active in seeking upgrades than the Hershey Bliss.  Although the Bliss spent most of the first half out front in the East, the Washington Galaxy have caught fire the last couple of weeks, winning 9 of their last 10 and passing Hershey for first place.

Eager to avoid falling behind Washington, Hershey GM Scott Lawrence pursued numerous options for strengthening his roster.  In the end, he made a single deal, acquiring LW Vonnie McLearen and D Gustaf Bergstrom from the Dakota Jackalopes in exchange for F Kelvin Starkey, minor-league D Alex Angelos, and a 2nd-round draft pick.

Vonnie McLearen

In McLearen, the Bliss add a rising star who will give their already-solid offense a boost.  The 23-year-old winger was one of Dakota’s top scorers, putting up 12 goals and 20 assists on the season.  Over the last couple of seasons, McLearen has risen from a lightly-used reserve to become a key offensive contributor.  He has a reputation as a hard worker and a strong two-way player.

“Honestly, I was a little surprised to discover that Vonnie McLearen was available,” said Lawrence.  “Great young guys like that are usually tough to come by.  He’s a tremendous pickup for us.  We’re really excited about the energy and spark he’s going to bring to our team.”

Gustaf Bergstrom

The Bliss also added a veteran grinder in Bergstrom.  The 30-year-old blueliner will be the seventh defenseman for Hershey, replacing rookie Kermit Kaufman.  He was a longtime starter for the Jackalopes before being demoted to reserve duty this year.  He appeared in only 6 games with Dakota in the 2017 season, recording an assist.

“When you’re playing those tough games down the stretch and in the Finals, you could always use a little extra grit,” said Lawrence.  “Bergstrom’s an old-fashioned banger, the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to scrap and does the dirty work.  He gives us that quality depth, a guy we can count on when we need him.”

While the acquisition was welcomed by Bliss fans, the deal got a chilly reception in Dakota.  McLearen has long been a favorite among Jackalopes rooters, who have enjoyed watching him blossom into a top-notch starter.  The fans were heartbroken to see McLearen dealt, and they bombarded the front office with angry tweets and emails.

“This was a tough deal to make,” said Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard.  “Everyone around here loves Vonnie.  Heck, I love Vonnie, and I hated to give him up.  But sometimes you have to make tough deals in this business.”

According to team sources, the trade was financially motivated.  The small-market Jackalopes spent freely this season in hopes of building a contender.  Instead, the team has languished around the .500 mark, well behind Anchorage and Michigan.  McLearen will be a free agent this offseason and is likely to command a significant raise.  The strapped-for-cash Jackalopes are unlikely to be able to re-sign the young winger, and they wanted to get a return for him rather than see him walk away for nothing.

Kelvin Starkey

In exchange for McLearen, the Jackalopes received a pair of young prospects.  The 24-year-old Starkey was signed by Hershey before last season, and displayed considerable promise.  He had worked his way into a starting role for the Bliss prior to the trade.  In 11 games with Hershey, Starkey scored 8 points (1 goal and 7 assists).

“We’re hoping that we got ourselves the next Vonnie McLearen in this deal,” said Mindegaard.  “Kelvin is a guy who has worked his way up the hard way, and we think he’s got considerable room to grow with some additional playing time.”

Alex Angelos

The 20-year-old Angelos is an offensive-minded defenseman who flashed considerable promise with Hershey’s minor-league affiliate in Albuquerque.  With the Screaming Eagles, Angelos put up 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) in 44 games.

“Alex Angelos is a guy who fits well with our team concept,” said Mindegaard.  “He’s a fast skater, and he’s shown that he can contribute in a high-tempo environment.  He’s also a strong shooter and he has a great passing touch.  He’s a player who has the potential to have a long and successful career here.”

While the Jackalopes are gearing up to get younger, the Bliss are hoping that the acquisition of McLearen will put them over the top.  Each of the last two seasons, Hershey has come up short against the Galaxy, and the team and their fans are growing impatient for a shot at the title.  “Everyone in this organization is hungry for a championship,” said Lawrence.  “We believe that this trade puts us in position to make that run to the title.”