Kulkarov Finds Bliss in SHL

Nikolai Kulkarov

When Nikolai Kulkarov joined the SHL in 2016 as a draft pick of the Hershey Bliss, he was regarded as a promising prospect, a heavy hitter who also had the speed and agility to move the puck and contribute on offense.  He was also regarded as something of a mystery, a painfully shy young man who barely spoke English and spent most of his time either on the ice or in his apartment.

Now in his third season with the Bliss, Kulkarov hasn’t yet blossomed into the two-way star that some observers projected.  But he has blossomed considerably as a person.  His English is far from perfect, but he can now hold his own in conversations and interviews.  He’s also considerably more outgoing and free with his teammates.  According to the young blueliner, he owes his personal growth to a couple of men: teammate Ruslan Gromov… and Pat Sajak.

“I learn my English from ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” said Kulkarov.

In his first season with Hershey, the culture shock was nearly unbearable for Kulkarov.  “Everything is different in America,” said the young blueliner.  “Especially the big cities, like New York and Washington.  Hershey was smaller and more comfortable, but still difficult.  I was missing home very much.”  He hid in the shower after games to avoid questions from reporters.  His Bliss teammates tried to help by inviting him out to dinners and team gatherings, but Kulkarov almost always declined, afraid that he would be embarrassed by his limited English proficiency.  “I was scared I would say something dumb or mean by accident, and then they would hate me or not want me around,” he explained.

Instead, whenever he was not at practice or a game, Kulkarov stayed in his apartment or hotel room, reading Russian books and websites and listening to familiar songs from home, and calling his family for long and sad conversations.  “I thought very much about going home, maybe to the KHL,” the defenseman said.

Kulkarov might have given up and gone home if not for Gromov.  The veteran blueliner noticed the rookie’s reticence and began speaking to him in the clubhouse.  “He spoke to me in Russian and said, ‘Nik, I think maybe you are a shadow, because I only see you for games.’  He gave me the chance to talk to someone who understands.”  Kulkarov opened up about his homesickness, his anxiety about speaking English, and his difficulties adjusting to life in America.

“Ruslan said he would be my protector,” the defenseman said.  And Gromov proceeded to take Kulkarov under his wing.  He served as the young man’s unofficial translator, invited him out with small groups of teammates to get more comfortable, and gave him a suggestion to work on his English.

“He told me to watch television,” Kulkarov explained.  “Then I could hear English and learn to understand in private.”

So in addition to his twice-weekly English classes, the rookie started watching American TV shows for hours a day.  He quickly became a fan of “Wheel of Fortune.”  He was first drawn to the show by the bright and colorful set, but he soon became captivated by the show’s host, Sajak, and his easy banter with contestants.  “Pat looked very relaxed and comfortable,” said Kulkarov.  “He was cool.  I wanted to be cool too.”

So whenever Kulkarov found himself in an awkward situation or was struggling for a word, he tried to emulate Sajak’s cool.  “If I can be like Pat,” the defenseman said, “then I will not feel so uncomfortable.”

With Sajak’s example in mind, Kulkarov worked with Gromov to improve his speaking skills.  He practiced conversations and interviews with his teammate, and asked about things that he saw or heard that he didn’t understand.  “Ruslan was very patient with me,” said Kulkarov.  “Even if my question was dumb or I made silly mistake, he did not laugh or make fun.”

Today, Kulkarov is comfortable handling post-game interviews on his own, and he enjoys spending time with his teammates off the ice.  He still watches “Wheel of Fortune” when he can.  And he tries to pay forward the help that Gromov gave him.  When the Bliss drafted a Russian, C Yegor Nestorov, this season, Kulkarov took the young player under his wing.

“I want all players to know: life in America is not so scary,” said Kulkarov.  “There are many people here who will help you.  You do not have to be alone.”


East Full of Surprises Early

Through roughly one-quarter of the SHL season, the race in the Eastern Division has defied expectations.  As Washington Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely put it, “If anybody correctly predicted the standings so far, you ought to get to Vegas and start playing the tables, because you must have ESP or something.”

The most shocking storyline by far has been the collapse of the defending champion Hershey Bliss.  Widely favored to capture a second straight division title, the Bliss instead fell toward the division basement and have remained there since.  Their incredibly slow start hasn’t been the result of injuries (they haven’t suffered any) or key departures from last season (their roster returned largely intact).  In fact, the exact cause of their struggles has been a mystery.

After Hershey lost 3-0 in Saskatchewan on Friday to run their losing streak to five, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber called out his club, saying that the championship had gone to their heads.  “When you win a title, that’s a real sugar high,” Barber said.  “But after the high comes the crash.  We made the mistake of believing our own press.  We’ve gone as soft as a bag of Kisses in a hot car on a summer day.”  C Justin Valentine, on the other hand, thinks the problem is “mostly bad puck luck, honestly.  You look at the underlying numbers, they’re pretty similar to last year.  We’re getting the looks and the shots, doing our work on the defensive end, but we’re not getting the breaks.”

One obvious trouble spot for the Bliss is a perennial problem in Chocolate City: goaltending.  After Brandon Colt came out of nowhere to win the Finals MVP last season, the hockey world was eager to see if he could repeat the feat.  So far, he hasn’t.  Colt’s GAA has ballooned nearly a full goal since last season (from 2.77 to 3.68), while his save percentage has plummeted from .909 to .872.  Meanwhile Milo Stafford, the ageless backup who defied the skeptics by producing strong numbers year after year, suddenly looks as though he might be washed up at age 36.  “It’s a hard time for Milo and me,” said Colt.  “We feel like we’re letting the whole team down.”

With Hershey down and out, a couple of surprising teams have jumped up to grab the spotlight.  The Hamilton Pistols looked to be a young team on the rise, finishing just below the .500 mark last season.  But now it appears they’ve arrived ahead of schedule.  After going 3-1-1 on a tough run through the West this week, culminating in a 3-3 tie with mighty Michigan at Cadillac Place, the Pistols ran their record to 11-3-1 and are five points clear in the division.

Last season, Hamilton’s strong top line was dragged down by a lack of depth and experience.  GM Marcel LaClaire made some modest but shrewd moves this offseason. He acquired a pair of seasoned veteran leaders in C Henry Constantine and D Craig Werner, and called up a bunch of prospects (wingers Jamie Campbell and Michael Jennings and defensemen Albie Glasco and Buster Kratz) to fix their dismal bottom line.  The result has been a high-octane offense that’s scored 62 goals and compiled a +27 rating so far, along with a solid defense in front of Lasse Koskinen, who appears to be the league’s next great netminder.

“Everyone talked about how this wasn’t our year, but we were really going to be something a couple seasons down the road,” said coach Keith Shields.  “I told our guys, why the heck shouldn’t it be our year?  Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young or too green to compete.  And they sure haven’t!  What we’re doing night in and night out is an inspiration.”

Slotted in behind high-flying Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres.  Ever since the Tigres joined the league in 2016, they’ve been built on a hard-nosed defense and a great goalie in Riki Tiktuunen.  The question was whether they could ever develop a functional offense that would allow them to compete.  In their third season, they’ve finally done it.  Quebec made a splash in free agency, signing ex-Washington winger Walt Camernitz to a 4-year, $20 million deal.  Skeptics wondered whether Camernitz was really worth that much money.  The early returns have been extremely encouraging; not only is Camernitz producing at a point-a-game pace so far (7 goals, 9 assists), he’s also sparked his linemates, C Mikhail Ilyushin (6 goals, 13 assists) and RW Stephane Mirac (6 goals, 7 assists).  They’ve also added a new top pairing of strong two-way defenders, top draft pick Laurie Workman (4 goals, 6 assists) and minor-league callup Richard McKinley (3 goals, 5 assists).  They’ve almost doubled their goal output from the same point last season (from 26 to 44).  Their newfound offensive prowess has allowed them to post a 9-6-0 record despite Tiktuunen looking a notch less dominant than usual.

“Before, everyone said the only way we could win was to make the game a bloodbath and win a 1-0 rock fight,” said coach Martin Delorme.  “But now we show that you can be a tough, hard-working team and also score the goalies.  Perhaps our new uniforms have made us more stylish.”

Lurking close behind Hamilton and Quebec are a pair of familiar foes.  The Washington Galaxy were expected to take a step back this season after losing Camernitz and D Patrick Banks.  But they’ve shown unexpected resilience, surviving an early injury to C J.C. Marais and posting a solid 8-7-0 record.  Their success has been fueled by a resurgence of their top line, led by McNeely.  The D.C. star leads the league in points (28) and is tied for the lead in goals (13) with Hamilton’s Steven Alexander.  “People rushed to bury us, but we’ve got the experience and the bloodline.”

Meanwhile, the New York Night may be best known for coach Nick Foster‘s attempt to start a feud with Hamilton, but they’ve looked decent so far with a 7-7-1 record.  They’ve rediscovered the firepower that went missing last season; after hanging a 10-spot on Seattle Friday, they now lead the league with 63 goals.  While their defense remains a mess, much-maligned goalie Jesse Clarkson has quietly provided a steady performance (5-4-0, 3.11 GAA, .913 sv%) that has kept them in games.

“There’s a lot of hockey still to be played,” said Foster.  “This division’s still wide open.  Stay tuned, ’cause anything can happen.”

Interview of the Week: Reese Milton

This week’s interview is with Hershey Bliss D Reese Milton.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with one of the league’s best defensemen, Reese Milton of the Hershey Bliss.  Reese, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

Reese Milton

Reese Milton: Well, sure thing!

SHLD: Congratulations on being the defending champs!  How did that unexpected victory feel?

RM: Really good!  It may have been unexpected to the rest of the world, but not to us.  We knew what a talented group we had, and we felt like we could go all the way.  But when we actually did, it was a pretty overwhelming experience.  And bringing the Vandy back to central PA and getting the love from the fans… that was pretty special.

SHLD: You guys wore those gold-trimmed uniforms on opening night to celebrate your championship.  What did you think of them?

RM: I thought they looked sharp!  Very classy, and a special way to honor the season we had.

SHLD: You’re off to a surprisingly slow start this season.  Any cause for concern?

RM: We’re not too worried.  We’ve been playing the game right; we just haven’t had any puck luck.  We’ve had games when we’ve thrown a barrage at the net, and the other goalie just stands on his head.  And we’ve had some tough goals in our end too.  It’s early.  But it’s a competitive division, and we don’t want to fall too far behind.

SHLD: You’re arguably one of the best two-way defensemen in the league, yet you don’t get as much attention as some of the other big names.  Why do you think that is?

RM: I think part of it is that my game isn’t too flashy.  I don’t fight, I don’t go in for big devastating hits, and I’m not playing for headlines.  I just focus on playing a solid, clean game and helping my team win.  I’m not trying to be the center of attention.  Also, I don’t tend to talk to the media that often.  So it’s probably good that I’m doing this.

SHLD: Let’s give the people a chance to know you better, then.  Tell us something about you that most fans don’t know.

RM: One thing that most people don’t know is how much I love squirrels!

SHLD: Squirrels, huh?

RM: Absolutely!  At my home in upstate New York, there are a bunch of squirrels who live in the trees in my yard, and I love to feed them and play with them.

SHLD: Pretty cool!

RM: And sometimes, if one of them gets hurt, I’ll bring them into my house and nurse them back to health. I have an old cat tower in my house for the squirrels to play on.

SHLD: Wow, that’s unusual!  Must be neat for them.

RM: They really seem to like it.  I guess you could say I’m nuts about squirrels!  Get it, “nuts”?  Because squirrels like to eat nuts.

SHLD: Yeah, we get it.

RM: There’s a lot of things that people don’t know about squirrels.  They don’t even realize how many kinds of squirrels there are!  Eastern grey squirrels, Western grey squirrels, fox squirrels, California ground squirrels, red squirrels.  And that’s not even getting into flying squirrels, or other members of the squirrel family like chipmunks and marmots.

SHLD: Wow, you sure know a lot about squirrels.

RM: Want to hear my squirrel impression?

SHLD: Aaaaand it looks like we’re out of time!  That interview definitely went in an unexpected direction.  Thanks for your time, Reese.

RM: You’re welcome.  Love to the Hershey fans and my fellow squirrel nerds!



Bliss Don Gold-Trimmed Uniforms on Opening Night

Last season, the Hershey Bliss won a championship that no one expected them to win, shocking the Anchorage Igloos in 7 games to capture the Vandy.  And on Opening Night this season, the Bliss celebrated their championship in a way that no SHL team ever has before, debuting a special gold-trimmed uniform for the occasion.

According to coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber, the plan had been in the works for virtually the entire offseason.  “Once the shock wore off [on the win] and the parade was over, we started thinking about what else we could do to celebrate,” said Barber.  “It was a special win – even better than a Special Dark bar – and we wanted to do something special for the fans.”

Inspiration struck when the Hershey chocolate company debuted the new Hershey’s Gold bar, a “caramelized creme” bar with peanuts and pretzel bits inside, and offered to let the team give away free samples on Opening Night.  “One of the guys in our marketing department is from Chicago, and he remembered that the Cubs wore gold on their jerseys to celebrate winning the World Series,” Barber explained.  “So he thought: why not have us do the same thing?”

Hershey Bliss “championship” uniforms

The team decided to create a modified version of their regular uniforms, substituting gold for silver in their standard color scheme. The new threads were popular with the players.  “It’s like a gold medal for your whole body,” said LW Lance Sweet.

Impressively, they managed to keep the secret under wraps all the way until the opener on Saturday night against the Washington Galaxy.  As fans entered the Chocolate Center, they each received a Hershey’s Gold bar, with a special sleeve referencing the Bliss  championship.

Prior to the puck drop, Barber and owner Dean Sheridan hoisted the championship banner to the rafters as the crowd gave a standing ovation.  Sheridan then brought out the championship rings to hand out to the players.  One by one, starting with captain Justin Valentine and going down, the players skated out in their gold-trimmed uniforms as the crowd roared.

“Don’t worry,” Valentine quipped, “this is just a one-day thing to celebrate the championship.  You don’t need to go get new merch.”  After receiving a glare from Sheridan, the captain quickly added, “But the jerseys are in the team store, so you can buy them!  Everyone should get one!”

D Reese Milton held up his ring and saluted the crowd.  “This ring, these jerseys, and this whole celebration is for the fans of Central PA!” Milton shouted.  “We have the greatest fans and the best energy in the league.  No one thought we would win this, but we did.  Now we need to go out there and repeat, and really shock ’em!”

Unfortunately for the fans, Hershey came up short, falling 4-2 to the Galaxy.  Reportedly, the team was planning to wear the gold-trimmed jerseys again once or twice this season; after the loss and after getting off to a shockingly poor 0-4-1 start to the season, those plans have been shelved, at least for the time being.

“I’m glad we had a chance to remember last season and say thanks to the fans,” said Valentine.  “But we’re done looking back now.  From now on, we’re looking forward and thinking about what we need to do to win another title.  We’re not going to be able to sneak up on anyone this one.  We’ll have to fight for it.”


2018 SHL Season Preview – East

Hershey Bliss

Coming into last season, the Bliss had a reputation as a team with talent, but a persistent habit of coming up short in the clutch.  Then they outlasted Washington to win the East, then stunned heavily-favored Anchorage in 7 games to win the Vandy.  Now, the Bliss head into 2018 as favorites to repeat as division champs, and perhaps become the first SHL team to win back-to-back championships.  The “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart remains intact, as does their top defensive pairing of Reese Milton and Joel Baldwin.  The second line (LW Russell Nahorniak, C Spencer Kirkpatrick, and RW Noah Daniels), which took a key step forward last year, is still in place.  The only key contributor who isn’t back is veteran C Henry Constantine, a vocal clubhouse leader.  Meanwhile, the team added several quality rookies (D Cedric Meloche, C Yegor Nestorov, F Anton Lapointe) along with a couple of key free agents (D Jean-Luc Aubin and LW Trevor Green).  Put it all together, and it should be the same formula for victory that worked so well last season: a fast, high-scoring offense and a reliable defense.  If there are any question marks here, they’re in net.  Brandon Colt shocked the world in last season’s Finals and earned the MVP award.  If he can approach that level during 2018, Hershey has a fine shot to be back-to-back champs; if he reverts to the solid-but-unspectacular form he’s displayed in the rest of his career, the Bliss could be vulnerable.  Backup Milo Stafford defied the odds in 2017 with another great year, but he’s turning 36 and seems destined to decline eventually.  If that happens this year, the Bliss might not have such a sweet finish.

Washington Galaxy

As long as there’s been an SHL, the Galaxy have been contenders for the title.  They made back-to-back Finals trips in ’15 and ’16, then finished a close second to Hershey last season.  This year, though, they’ll likely miss the playoffs and might not even reach the .500 mark.  What went wrong?  Primarily, how they’ve bungled free agency.  Last season’s big signing was D Patrick Banks, who inked a three-year deal amid much fanfare.  He flopped in DC, scoring only 2 goals while struggling to mesh with Grant Warriner on the second pairing.  The Galaxy left him exposed in the expansion draft, where he was selected by Boston.  Backup goalie Ron Mason, another big-money signing, put up a much better season (11-10-0, 2,78 GAA, .911 save percentage); unfortunately, Washington had only inked him to a one-year deal, and he bolted to rival Hamilton this offseason.  Instead, the Galaxy will rely on rookie Darrell Bondurant, who didn’t wow anyone in the minors last year.  Coming into this offseason, the Galaxy had two big names to re-sign: wingers Casey Thurman and Walt Camernitz.  Washington made a priority of Thurman, and they inked him to a five-year, $20 million contract.  However, they wound up alienating Camernitz; the gritty and underrated forward wound up in Quebec instead, blowing a huge hole in Washington’s second line.  (C J.C. Marais, coming off of a bad year at age 33, is another concern.)  Next, the Galaxy declined to tender an offer to rugged third-line RW Sindri Pentti, declaring that he was over the hill at age 35.  Pentti ended up joining Camernitz in Quebec, while Washington filled his slot with Roman Bandikoff, who is just as old, put up similar numbers, and has a worse defensive reputation.  The bottom line: the Galaxy will likely be worse on offense, defense, and in net.  Meanwhile, Hamilton, Quebec, and even New York all improved, often at Washington’s expense.  Making matters worse, Washington’s store of prospects is pretty thin.  It seems unlikely that the Galaxy could tumble from second to fifth, but that’s arguably more likely than the chances of them winning the division again.

Hamilton Pistols

If there’s a team that can topple the Bliss atop the East, it’s most likely to be the Pistols.  Hamilton has plenty of star-quality talent in its ranks; LW Steven Alexander may be the SHL’s best pure scorer, C Calvin Frye its finest young player, Raymond Smyth its finest blueliner.  What’s held them back in the past is a lack of balance and depth.  In particular, the Pistols’ third line was a disaster last season; they gave up tons of shot opportunities whenever they were on the ice.  To fix the balance problem, Hamilton acquired several solid veterans: C Henry Constantine (who got a ring with Hershey last year), G Ron Mason (who won the Vandy with Anchorage in ’15), and D Craig Werner.  Then they overhauled the third line and bottom defensive pairing, calling up a number of players who showed well with their affiliate in Oshawa last season.  The new bunch is green and may take some time to mesh, but they should hold their own against the bottom-end units on other clubs.  With the four-team playoff field this year, there’s a good shot that Hamilton makes the postseason for the first time.  But the picture feels unfinished; the Pistols seem a piece or two away from becoming a truly elite team.  Maybe they acquire the missing pieces at the trade deadline, or maybe they add them next season.  Either way, this seems like a team on the rise; it seems likely we’ll be seeing Keith Shields‘ crew in the postseason for some time to come.

Quebec Tigres

In their second season, the Tigres showed signs of growth and improvement; they finished out of the cellar, and the hard-nosed defensive ethic preached by coach Martin Delorme appeared to be taking root.  But their upside potential was limited by a stagnant, impotent offense; by and large, Quebec seemed content to jam up the neutral zone and try to win ugly, 1-0 games.  This approach worked all right when Riki Tiktuunen was between the pipes, but not at all when the fragile netminder was absent.  (The Tigres went 17-14-7 in Tiktuunen’s starts, and 3-19-0 with anyone else in the crease.)  GM Pete Gondret made aggressive moves to shore up the Tigres’ weak spots; they may be the most improved team this season, and that’s not even including their sharp new uniforms.  To bolster the attack, Gondret signed a pair of ex-Washington teammates, LW Walt Camernitz and RW Sindri Pentti.  Both are rugged two-way players that are well-suited to Quebec’s style of play, but they should also give the offense a much-needed shot in the arm.  To shore up the goaltending situation, Gondret signed Riley Lattimore to back up Tiktuunen.  Lattimore posted a respectable 2.96 GAA and .909 save percentage in Anchorage last season; he should ensure that the Tigres can compete on nights when Tiktuunen isn’t in net.  So the Tigres will be better… but will they be a contender?  That likely depends on two things: whether Tiktuunen can stay healthy, and whether Camernitz is able to take the scoring burden off of Stephane Mirac and help the latter bounce back from his sophomore slump.  If those things pan out – and if Delorme can get his messy personal life under control – this is a team that could surprise.

New York Night

Last season, new coach Nick Foster came in determined to shake up a struggling club.  He was determined to fix the sour team chemistry and improve the team’s leaky defense while maintaining their usual offensive pop.  Foster certainly shook things up; he called out his team publicly, juggled lines freely, and didn’t hesitate to bench, demote, or trade players who didn’t get with the program.  After all the upheaval, though, things didn’t work out as Foster hoped; instead, the offense dropped back to the middle of the pack, while the defense remained as porous as ever.  The one bright spot was the goaltending, with Jesse Clarkson and rookie Sherman Carter both turning in solid seasons, but they were under constant siege.  And while there are some new faces, most of the changes were lateral moves.  And with many teams in the East making serious upgrades, it’s tough to picture New York moving up.  If the Night are going to contend, they’ll need to see improvement from their existing players.  Last year, almost everyone on the team had a down year.  RW Ivan “Trainwreck” Trujwirnek and D Rocky Winkle were two of the only exceptions; the rest of the squad would do well to copy their energetic two-way play.  Perhaps the biggest key to New York’s success is RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson.  The enigmatic star had a dismal season, clashing repeatedly with Foster and scoring only 20 goals while showing the same disinterest in passing and defense that he always has.  The most notable “highlight” of his year was getting beaten up in a bar fight.  Foster reportedly pushed to get rid of Nelson in the offseason, but owner Marvin Kingman blocked the move.  If Nelson can swallow his pride and step up his game, he could be the difference maker that pushes the Night to a playoff spot.  If he can’t, it could be another long year in the Big Apple… and Foster might wind up paying with his job.

Boston Badgers

The big victory in Boston this season already happened, when the Badgers were chosen as one of the SHL’s new expansion teams.  GM Jody Melchiorre, who came up with the Igloos organization, has emphasized the desire to build a “blue-collar team.”  He’s done well at that, assembling a youthful collection of muckers and grinders through the expansion draft.  This is a scrappy team that should be good at wall work and winning puck battles in the corners; they won’t be a fun opponent, to say the least.  But it’s best not to expect too much from this bunch, because of the missing ingredient: offense.  LW Lix Darnholm, a Swedish prospect who was the first overall pick in the draft, is the only legitimate scoring threat Boston has.  Opposing defenses will stack up to stop him, as there’s no one else on the team who can make them pay.  They’re likely to try the Quebec route of slowing the pace and trying to win low-scoring games on fluke goals.  But the Tigres had a secret weapon to make that strategy work: Tiktuunen, one of the league’s best young netminders.  Neither of the Badgers’ goalies, Dennis Wampler or rookie Carson Wagner, is anywhere near Tiktuunen’s class.  This should be a hard-working and reasonably entertaining team that will endear itself to the fans in Beantown, but don’t expect a lot of victories.  Not yet, anyway.

Projected Finish:

  1. Hershey
  2. Hamilton
  3. Quebec
  4. Washington
  5. New York
  6. Boston

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.”


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!”