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.”

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Corrigan and Wright Have Tense Face-Off

Last week, tensions flared between the Seattle Sailors and Michigan Gray Wolves when Sailors RW Vince Mango snapped an on-ice selfie to celebrate a hat trick and was drilled into the boards by Wolves LW Vladimir Beruschko.  This week, when the teams met for the first time since the incident, and the bad blood nearly turned into a brawl, with the teams’ coaches nearly coming to blows.

Coming into Wendesday’s game, the Sailors talked openly about avenging Mango, their injured star.  “A lot of us weren’t too happy with what [the Wolves] did to Vince,” said LW Rod “Money” Argent.  “We’re really fired up to take them on again.  We’re not taking this lying down.”

Ordinarily, a matchup between basement-dwelling Seattle and high-flying Michigan, especially with the Sailors’ top scorer sidelined, would likely be a blowout.  But the Sailors came in hot and clearly intending to send the Wolves a message.  Seattle took an early 2-0 lead, cashing in on a pair of power plays to get ahead.  Michigan struck back to tie the game by the end of the period, and took the lead on a second-period goal by C Hunter Bailes.

But Seattle didn’t go down easily, as Argent scored on another power play midway through the third to tie it at 3.  When he celebrated his goal using one of Mango’s signature moves, Wolves D “Mad Max” Madison responded by shoving Argent to the ice from behind.  Argent popped up and got in Madison’s face, and both teams swarmed in the center of the ice.  The teams exchanged some shoves, a couple of face washed, and several dirty looks, but the refs managed to break things up before they came to blows.

Stewart Corrigan

Sailors coach Stewart “Popeye” Corrigan took the opportunity to yell at his Michigan counterpart, Ron Wright, between the benches.  “Your team is a bunch of [expletive] thugs!” Corrigan shouted.  “We’re going to get even with you [expletives]!”  Wright largely ignored him.

With three and a half minutes in the game, Bailes scored what proved to be the game-winning goal.  As he skated back to the bench, Sailors D Wayne Snelling gave Bailes a shot to the back of the head.  The furious Wolves jumped off the bench to go after Snelling.  The Sailors raced to their teammate’s assistance.

Ron Wright

As the scrum broke out on the ice, Wright and Corrigan popped over their respective partition to yell at one another.  Wright accused Snelling of deliberately attempting to injure Bailes, who was sidelined with a concussion earlier in the season.  Corrigan shouted back that the Wolves had injured Mango and tried to do the same to Argent.  They continued shouting back and forth, until Corrigan reached down onto his bench and grabbed a stick, which he swung at Wright.  The Michigan boss shouted “You’re [expletive] crazy!” as he jumped back to avoid the stick.

Corrigan was ejected from the game.  Incredibly, no one else on either team was ejected or even penalized.

After the game, both coaches remained irate.  “Corrigan is a clown and a psychopath,” said Wright.  “I don’t know if he’s putting on a show to try to distract everyone from how lousy his team is, or if he really is that much of a rageaholic.  But he’s out of control.  The league needs to do something about him.  Either they need to send him to therapy or just kick him out of the league.  One of these days he’s going to kill somebody.”

In response, Corrigan blasted the Wolves as “a bunch of vicious criminals.  Hockey’s a physical game, but what they do isn’t about hockey.  It’s legalized assault.  Because they won the championship last year, everyone looks the other way.  So when they send their goons out and cripple our best player, everyone says, ‘Oh, who cares?  It’s just [expletive] Seattle.’  But I’m not taking it, and neither is my team.  And you know what?  Every other team out there is secretly cheering us on.  They won’t admit it, but they’re all sick of the [expletive] Michigan gets away with.”

The league fined Corrigan $3,000 and suspended him for a game – the latest in a long line of disciplinary actions that he has faced in his two years as Sailors coach – while also fining Snelling and Madison $1,000 each for their hits.  Wright also received a $500 fine for his part in the hostilities.  “While we have no problem with spirited rivalries in this league,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell, “we definitely have a problem with deliberately trying to injure opposing players.  Both the Wolves and Sailors should be aware that I will have a zero-tolerance policy for any extracurricular activities between them going forward.”

Responded Corrigan: “How much do you want to bet this ‘zero-tolerance policy’ only goes one way?  If one of my guys hits a Michigan player, he’s banned for life.  If one of their thugs maims my guy, he gets a stern talking-to and that’s it.  I know how this league works.”

Mascot War Rekindled: Wally Wolf Hacks Rival’s Twitter Account

It was supposed to be over.  During the 2015 season, the Anchorage Igloos‘ Petey the Polar Bear and the Michigan Gray Wolves‘ Wally Wolf were proxies for the rivalry between the West’s two top teams.  Both mascots feuded throughout the season before finally burying the hatchet during an on-ice sumo wrestling match in the last week of the season.  Since the mascots made nice, members of both teams (including Michigan LW Vladimir Beruschko and Anchorage coach Sam Castor) have insisted that the hostilities were dead and gone, never to resume.

Petey the Polar Bear

Looks like the declaration of peace was a bit premature.  When the Igloos and Wolves clashed on Friday at Arctic Circle Arena, Petey’s official Twitter account was hacked.  Upon investigation, the hack was discovered to be the work of Michigan’s mascot.  Not only is the Petey-Wally rivalry back, it has entered a new frontier.

Wally traveled with the Wolves for Friday’s much-anticipated showdown.  It’s unusual for a mascot to join a team for road games, but the Wolves said that they had brought him as “a good-luck charm” and “to give him a chance to catch up with his friend Petey.”  The two mascots met for tea on Friday afternoon at an Anchorage cafe; video of the rendezvous appeared on both teams’ websites.  All seemed normal.

But during Friday’s game, a series of unusual tweets appeared on the @IgloosPetey account.  Typically, the Anchorage mascot doesn’t tweet much during games, apart from a few pro-Igloos messages and the occasional selfie with fans.  During this game, though, Petey was atypically active.  In addition, the content of his messages was far different than his standard fare.

“My butt itches,” @IgloosPetey tweeted about six minutes into the games.  From there, he issued a series of tweets predicting that the Igloos would lose the game, adding insults directed at several Anchorage players and even the city itself.  After C Jake Frost pushed a slapshot wide late in the first period, a tweet reading “Frost is overrated” appeared on the account.  Later, @IgloosPetey issued the following slam: “Anchorage is a two-bit town that smells like rotten fish… ugh!”

Igloos officials became aware of the situations when fans began tweeting complaints to the account.  At first, they thought the culprit was a disgruntled employee, but they later realized that the account had been hacked.  The team quickly took steps to regain control of the account, and by the end of the game (a 3-2 Igloos win in overtime) the offending tweets had been deleted.

Wally Wolf

When the front office discovered that the account’s password had been changed to “W@llyRuleS!”, they were able to identify the culprit.  Apparently, during the seemingly friendly lunch, Wally got hold of Petey’s phone and was able to change the password to his Twitter account.

Anchorage GM Will Thorndike took umbrage to the hack.  “I am deeply disturbed that Wally Wolf would resort to cyber warfare,” Thorndike told reporters.  “And to take advantage of a friendly get-together to launch his nefarious plan… that’s so low, I have no words.  But if that’s the way he and the Wolves want to play it, we can do that.  The mascot war is back on!”

Replied Michigan GM Tim Carrier, “I am disappointed to hear these accusations against Wally on the basis of very flimsy evidence.  But if the mascot war is back on, so be it.  Oh, and in case the Igloos intend to try something when they come to town: Wally’s Twitter account has two-factor authentication.”

Wolves Lose Bailes to Serious Upper-Body Injury

The Michigan Gray Wolves seemed to be in a great position as the season approached its halfway point.  The defending champions were, if anything, better than ever.  The team’s defense remained at its smothering, hard-hitting best.  Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist remained the league’s best netminder.  And the offense, if anything, had jumped to the next level.  It had gone from being good enough to being a genuine asset.  The Anchorage Igloos seemed likely to challenge, but the Wolves remained clear favorites to reach the SHL Finals for the second straight season.

Hunter Bailes

Those projections took a big hit this week, as first-line C Hunter Bailes went down with a severe upper-body injury, one that could sideline him for up to a month.  Michigan’s players and fans alike were left anxious and concerned about where the season might go without their captain and top scorer.

“Losing Hunts, man, that’s tough,” said Wolves RW Gordon Lunsford.  “When we found out that it was a serious injury, it kind of took the breath out of us for a bit.”

Bailes was hurt in Wednesday’s game against New York.  In the third period, the center was bringing the puck up out of his own end and was leveled by a devastating check from D Dominic Sanchez.  Bailes fell awkwardly and landed with his shoulder canted against the boards.  He was down for over a minute as the team’s medical staff came to his aid.  He came off the ice and directly down the tunnel.

“We should have known it was bad then,” said Lunsford.  “A guy as tough as that doesn’t go down unless something’s really wrong.”

Bailes showed back up on the bench before the end of the game, although he did not return to the ice.  Follow-up examination after the game revealed that the injury was more significant than Bailes first believed, one that will keep him out for weeks rather than days.

“I’ve always been a play-through-the-pain guy,” said Bailes.  “Most hockey players are.  So once the initial shock wore off, I thought maybe it wasn’t so bad and I could go back out there.  But then the docs looked me over afterward and they said, ‘Uh-uh, you can’t play with that.’”

In losing Bailes, Michigan loses arguably their best two-way player.  He had put up 9 goals and 24 points before the injury.  The only reserve forward on Michigan’s current roster is Travis Gauss, who is not a natural center and had been demoted to bench status after a poor 2016.

Wolves coach Ron Wright tried to downplay the significance of the injury.  “You never like to lose a player like Hunter Bailes,” Wright told reporters.  “He’s a tremendous asset to us, and having him off the ice stings.  But I’m a big believer in the next-man-up philosophy.  No one player makes or breaks us.  The team is what matters.  And I know everybody on this team is going to step up and help us fill the gap.”

Wright said that the team has no plans to make a trade to replace Bailes, although they might consider calling up a center from the minors.

The Wolves are still a strong team, even without Bailes, and they remain on top in the West.  But whether their offense continues to click or starts to sputter without their top-line anchor will go a long way toward determining whether Michigan can repeat as SHL champion.

Michigan-Anchorage Rivalry Heats Up

Things could still change with more than half of the season yet to go, but one thing seems likely: Either the Michigan Gray Wolves or the Anchorage Igloos will win the SHL’s Western Division.  The teams have traded titles in the last two years, and they appear to be shaping up for another heavyweight clash.  The already-fierce rivalry gained a new, nastier edge after a chippy game between the two teams at Cadillac Place on Friday.

Prior to the game, Wolves coach Ron Wright seemed to hint that the contest might be a brutal one, saying, “These are the games that set the tone for the season.  The team that’s able to set the tone physically and dictate the pace of play is definitely going to have the upper hand.”  Igloos coach Sam Castor responded in kind, saying, “We’re not the kind of team that starts something, but we’re not going to let ourselves be pushed around.”

From the drop of the puck, it was clear that Michigan intended to slow down Anchorage’s high-flying offense with a brutal, punishing defensive style that harkened back to Martin Delorme‘s 2015 team.  The Wolves defenders clamped down in the neutral zone; any Anchorage player that went into the corner for a puck or got near a board paid for it, harshly.

“Mad Max” Madison

The Igloos felt that several players, most notably the top defensive pairing of “Mad Max” Madison and Fritz Kronstein, crossed the line from hard play into assault.  Midway through the first period, Madison gave Igloos LW Jerry Koons a rough ride into the boards in the Anchorage end; Koons came up wobbly and a bit woozy, and headed down the tunnel briefly before returning.  Castor repeatedly castigated the officials, who he felt were allowing the game to get out of control.

“I feel like the officials really fell down in this one,” the Igloos coach said later.  “They had a chance to keep it from turning into a bloodbath with some early whistles, but they didn’t do it.”

The first period ended in a scoreless tie.  Anchorage RW Remi Montrechere came off the ice bleeding from the eyebrow after an apparent high stick by Wolves D Bjorn Tollefson that went uncalled.  Castor and his team grew furious in the locker room.

In the second period, the physical play continued, and Anchorage began to respond in kind.  But when Madison went for a brutal open-ice hit on C Jake Frost that the Igloos felt was a low blow, matters came to a head.  LW Les Collins went to Castor and asked to be put on the ice against Madison.  Collins is a quiet player who generally eschews fights, but he’s also considered secretly tough.

Les Collins

Castor put Collins on the ice for the next shift, and the young winger immediately skated to Madison and challenged him to a fight.  The burly defender, who outweighs Collins by at least 50 pounds, initially laughed off the challenge.  But Collins persisted, shoving Madison repeatedly in the chest, and the blueliner eventually dropped the gloves and went at it.  Collins emerged bruised and bloodied, but he landed a couple of good shots on Madison before referees separated the two and assessed them both fighting majors.

The two cooled their heels in the box for the next 5 minutes (and in the meantime, LW Todd Douglas scored to give the Wolves a 1-0 lead).  But less than a minute after they were sprung, Collins came up to Madison again looking to scrap.  This time, the veteran defenseman wasted no time unleashing his fists, and Collins suffered a nasty cut under his eye and lost a couple of teeth.

“I don’t look kindly on guys taking cheap shots at our players, especially stars like Jerry and Jake,” said Collins later.  “We’re a family here, and when someone goes after the family, I’m not going to stand for it.”

The referees again assessed matching majors and warned both benches that any further incidents would lead to ejections.  The teams managed to avoid any further fights, although the mood on the ice remained tense.

The Wolves took a 2-0 lead early in the third on a slapper from Kronstein, but the Igloos struck back in the final 5 minutes of the game, scoring twice within 24 seconds to tie it up.  Collins assisted on the tying goal, feeding Montrechere for a shot from the faceoff circle, and he made a point of skating past the Michigan bench and staring Madison down.

The game ended as a 2-2 tie, and several players on both sides, including Collins and Madison, had to be restrained from throwing hands after the final siren.

“I couldn’t believe that little shrimp wanted a piece of me,” said Madison afterward.  “He might be crazier than me.  He’s like a little yappy dog.  But I’ll give him credit – he fought like hell.  And he kept coming, even after I loosened his teeth.  That little guy showed me something.”

Both teams suggested that unpleasantries might well resume in their next matchup.  “I think there’s plenty of bad blood to go around here,” said Wright.  “Neither of these teams is going down without a fight.”

Interview of the Week: Vladimir Beruschko

This week’s interview is with Michigan Gray Wolves LW Vladimir Beruschko.

SHL Digest: We’re here with one of the SHL’s most veteran players, Vladimir Beruscko.  Thanks for speaking with us, Vladimir!

Vladimir Beruschko

Vladimir Beruschko: It is my pleasure.

SHLD: So, your team is off to another strong start, with the league’s best record.  Do you consider yourselves the favorite to repeat as champions?

VB: (laughs) No, no.  Coach [Ron] Wright would kill me if I said such a thing.

SHLD: He doesn’t want you to consider yourselves the favorite?

VB: He says that to be the favorite is a curse.  You get soft and lose your edge.  To be hungry, to hustle, this makes a champion.  This is why Coach Wright does not like to be the favorite.

SHLD: But you’re a very talented team.  You have the best goal differential in the league.  Arguably, you have the best goalie in the league.

VB: No, no argument!  The Bear [Dirk Lundquist] is the best.

SHLD: Well, if you aren’t the favorite, who is?

VB: Anchorage is a very good team.  Dakota is very good, score a lot of goals.  Washington and Hershey, both good.  We take nothing for granted.

SHLD: Fair enough!  So, you’re one of the older players in the league.

VB: Yes, I am old man.  More grey hairs every day.

SHLD: Your production has dipped the last couple of seasons, and some have suggested that you might be nearing the end of the road.  Are you thinking about retirement at all?

VB: Absolutely not!  I feel young, still, even though I am old.  I am good with the passes and good with the defense.  I think maybe I will play until I am 50.

SHLD: We hope you do!  One more question: One of the things you’re best known for in the league is your feud with Petey the Polar Bear.  That’s been quiet lately.  Any chance it might heat up again, especially if you and Anchorage are battling for the division again?

VB: No, no. no.  Petey and me good now.  Petey my friend.  When I see Petey, I blow him kisses.  Happy times.

SHLD: Glad to hear it!  Well, thanks for the chat, and good luck the rest of the season!

VB: Thanks, I will try for that.

SHL Player of the Week – Week 1

Dirk Lundquist

Michigan SmallThe SHL selected Michigan Gray Wolves G Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist as its Player of the Week.  Lundquist started off the 2017 season strong, posting a 3-1-0 record with a 0.74 GAA and a .978 save percentage.  Lundquist’s dominant performance has helped the defending champion Wolves pick up where they left off last season, going 4-1-0 to tie with Hershey for the best record in the league.

On Opening Night, Lundquist stopped 40 shots to shut down Dakota in a 3-1 win.  On Wednesday, in the Wolves’ home opener, he turned aside 26 and posted a shutout of Seattle.  Then on Saturday, he made 37 saves to freeze the Igloos 3-0.

“The Bear is an inspiration to the whole team,” said Michigan coach Ron Wright.  “He’s already the unquestioned best goalie in the SHL.  But does he rest on his laurels?  No way.  He’s out there working harder than anyone, looking for ways to get even better.  He’s chasing perfection, and he’s not going to stop chasing it.  If we’re going to defend our title, it’s going to Dirk’s work ethic leading the way.”