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.”

Galaxy Stokes Rivalry with “Hershey-pocalypse”

The Washington Galaxy and Hershey Bliss have forged one of the SHL’s strongest rivalries.  They have proven to be the strongest teams in the East since the SHL’s beginning. Last season, the teams battled for the division title all the way to the very last day.  Yet in spite of their spirited competition, the Galaxy and Bliss have remained fairly cordial; the coaches and players largely seem to get along, as have the teams’ fan bases.

That may change going forward, as the Galaxy turned up the temperature on the rivalry this week with a controversial promotion that left both teams talking.

Prior to Wednesday’s game against the Bliss at Constellation Center, the Galaxy asked each fan to bring a Hershey bar with them, but didn’t explain why.  When the fans arrived at the gate, they were asked to turn in their Hershey bar.  In exchange, they each received a Milky Way bar.  The choice of the replacement candy bar was symbolic on two levels.  The first is the obvious connection with the “Galaxy” name.  Second, the Mars corporation (which manufactures the Milky Way bar) is headquartered in McLean, Virginia, a DC suburb.

“We wanted to offer our fans the chance for a superior chocolate-eating experience,” said Galaxy GM Ace Adams.  “And we want to encourage them to support their hometown candymaker, not our rival’s.”

But the promotion didn’t end there.  Between the second and third periods, the song “Candy Man” began playing over the arena speakers.  A brown rabbit bearing a suspicious similarity to Nibs, the Bliss mascot, skipped out onto the ice pushing a bin full of the turned-in Hershey bars.  He was greeted with scattered boos.

Suddenly, the Galaxy’s mascot Rocketman came out onto the ice, accompanied by a pair of talking M&M mascots.  They came up to the rabbit and knocked him down, confiscating the bin of Hershey bars, as “Candy Man” stopped playing, replaced by “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”  Then members of Washington’s operations crew wheeled a wood chipper onto the ice.  Rocketman and the M&Ms began feeding the Hershey bars into the wood chipper, with the spit-out fragments landing on the fallen rabbit.  The fans cheered this display wildly.

Once all the Hershey bard has been shredded, the rabbit jumped up and ran off the ice, chased by the M&Ms.  Meanwhile, Rocketman glided around the ice, flexing his muscles and tossing out coupons for Mars products.  Meanwhile, the PA announcer crowed, “Welcome to the Hershey-pocalypse!” and stated that henceforth, “any fan bringing Hershey candy into the arena will be ejected,” which was met by a roar of approval.  The crowd’s mood only improved after Washington completed a 5-4 win.

Washington coach Rodney Reagle was a big fan of the promotion and the attempt to stoke the rivalry.  “Personally, I’ve always been a Snickers man, because the peanuts fill you up and help you make it through those afternoon blood-sugar crashes,” said Reagle.  “But I’ll happily eat any of the fine Mars family of products.  They taste great, unlike Hershey bars, which taste like somebody scraped them out of the bottom of a bird cage.”

The coach added, “I’m all for fanning the flames of this rivalry.  I mean, it’s a little one-sided, since we’ve won all the titles.  But hate makes the world go round – sports hate, anyway – and I’m all for stirring the pot.  So come on, Galaxy fans: put a little hate in your heart!”

Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber objected to the between-periods display, saying “it’s a waste of good chocolate, and I can’t get behind that.”  He added, “A lot of guys in this room took notice, and they didn’t appreciate it.  We will proudly stand up for the superiority of Hershey’s chocolate any time.  We know that America’s best chocolate comes from central Pennsylvania, and we’ll fight anybody who says otherwise.”

Asked if the Bliss planned any revenge for the activity, Barber said, “The best revenge will come when we win the division this year.  But yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if our guys come up with something.”

Bliss Enjoying Sweet Life Atop East

The good times that the Hershey Bliss are experiencing now was born out of a moment of deep sadness.  Last season, the Bliss battled the Washington Galaxy for the Eastern title.  The teams faced each other on the last day of the season, identical records, winner take all.  Hershey took a 3-1 lead in the third period, only to see Washington scored four unanswered goals, including three in the final 7:30, to take the game and the division.

“It’s the most crushing moment I’ve ever experienced,” said RW Christopher Hart.  Hart is a member of Hershey’s “Love Line,” which failed to record a point in the game.

“Chocolate Chip” Barber

As the Bliss sat stunned and heartbroken in their locker room, trying to process the unthinkable, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber had a message for his players.  “I want each and every one of you to take a moment and remember how you’re feeling right now,” the coach said.  “Take a snapshot and keep it in your mind.  Then next season, think about the way you feel now, and then use that feeling to fuel you all the way to the title.  You can let this game destroy you, or you can let it inspire you so you never feel like this again.”

Halfway into the 2017 season, it appears that the team has taken Barber’s words to heart.  The Bliss have had a small but steady lead throughout virtually the entire first half.  They are seven points ahead of the Galaxy, eight points ahead of the promising but raw Hamilton Pistols, and 12 points clear of the New York Night.

Justin Valentine

“Our slogan this season is ‘Commit to it,'” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “We’re driven to work hard and make the kind of commitment that gets you a championship.  What we say to each other is, ‘Just one more.’  Just one more skate, one more practice, one more shift, one more defensive stop, one more goal.  Every day and every game, we’re trying to push ourselves a little bit farther.”

What’s the secret to Hershey’s success?  They’ve gotten stronger in all areas of their game.

Their offense has gone from being average to being a strength of the team.  They’ve scored 105 goals, third most in the league.  Valentine (23 goals, 16 assists) leads the attack; he’s publicly stated that he is shooting for a 50-goal, 100-point season.  But what’s undone the Bliss in previous years was the lack of secondary scoring behind the Love Line of Valentine, Hart, and LW Lance Sweet.  This year, the top line is getting considerably more help.  LW Russell Nahorniak is having a strong bounce-back season (11 goals, 22 points).  C Spencer Kirkpatrick (8 goals, 24 points) has taken a major step forward in his sophomore season.  And they’re getting solid seasons with RW Noah Daniels (7 goals, 19 points), C Henry Constantine (10 goals), and LW Lee Fleming (9 goals).

Hershey’s defense has also gotten stronger.  The Bliss blueliners have gotten more adept at blocking shots and creating congestion in front of the crease.  They’ve allowed only 987 shots to be directed at their netminders, a step below elite units like Michigan and Quebec but right on par with Washington and Anchorage in the next tier.  “We’re figuring out how to be strong on defense without slowing our pace down too much,” said team captain D Reese Milton.

Last season, the team acquired goalie Jesse Clarkson at the trade deadline, and he helped the team take off down the stretch.  Clarkson went to New York in free agency, but Hershey signed Brandon Colt from Hamilton to replace him.  Colt has done a credible job in net, going 13-8-3 with a 3.04 GAA.  And 35-year-old backup Milo Stafford continues to defy his age, going 3-1-2 with a 3.08 GAA.

“I think adversity has really strengthened us,” said Barber.  “Two years ago, we lost Sweets and it tanked our season.  Last year, we got our heart ripped out on the last day of the season.  But just like a good dark chocolate, a little bitter in the background makes it sweeter and richer.”

Certainly, nothing is guaranteed for the Bliss in the second half.  The Galaxy seem likely to get hot and challenge Hershey, and Hamilton or New York could move up as well.  Still, as Valentine says, “we’re in the position we want to be in.  Our fate is in our hands.”